Movie Review: Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox)

The best thing about Hidden Figures is its premise.  The history of the black women engineers and mathematicians who helped America win the Space Race has great potential as affecting […]

The best thing about Hidden Figures is its premise.  The history of the black women engineers and mathematicians who helped America win the Space Race has great potential as affecting historical drama.

We desperately need honest, well-told stories to countervail the wave of monochromatic sentimentality that recently turned a racist, sexist, chauvinistic pseudo-billionaire into a champion of American values.  Unfortunately, the makers of Hidden Figures fall victim to a different kind of sentimentality, and instead of revealing the truth, as they promise to in the title, they bury it under an avalanche of clichés.

The central flaw of Hidden Figures is that there are no round, only flat characters.  A flat character (according to E.M. Forster) is reducible to a single idea, easily recognizable as a type, and memorable to the extent that his conceptual simplicity makes him easy to remember. That pretty much sums up the three protagonists of Hidden Figures, whom we meet in the second scene, by the side of a country road in Virginia, where their car has broken down on their way to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor to NASA.  Katherine Goble (Taraji Henson) is shy, soft-spoken, prim, and brilliant. We know this because she has nervously stayed in the car and because she wears glasses.  Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is gruffly practical, a doer, and a natural engineer.  We know this because she’s under the car, in a skirt, trying to figure out whether the starter needs to be replaced.  And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is the bold, social, sexual member of the trio, which we know because she looks like Janelle Monáe and because she’s the one who sweet talks the redneck cop who pulls up to find out just what in the heck’s goin’ on here.  Over the next two hours, none of these three characters strays even an inch from her established type.  The actors aren’t to blame for this; they do the best they can.  Henson’s charming nerdiness will come as a pleasant surprise to viewers who know her primarily from Empire, and the earthy Spencer always seems twenty-five IQ points brighter than everybody else onscreen.  But the screenplay by Allison Schroeder and writer-director Theodore Melfi is too beholden to the formulas of a feel-good movie to allow the performers any creative leeway.

(Melfi and Schroeder make one or two halfhearted attempts to grant the characters something resembling an emotional life. The most substantial attempt is the subplot of Katherine’s romance with Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), which takes place intermittently over the course of the movie, amounts to roughly three minutes’ running time, and can be summarized as follows:  “I like you, miss.”  “I like you, too.”  “It’s amazing that the government hires female mathematicians.”  “That’s insulting.”  “I’m sorry.”  “Oh, that’s okay.”  “Want to get married?” “I do.”  To call this subplot under-imagined and superfluous is to understate the case.)

The predictability of Hidden Figures extends naturally from characters to plot.  The first time we see Katherine running half a mile to use the bathroom, because the only restroom for black women is on the other side of the NACA campus, we know with absolute certainty that at some point late in the second act her crusty, driven, “colorblind” supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, who looks at this point in his career like he was genetically designed to play a curmudgeonly government man), will angrily demand to know where she disappears to every day, and then, on learning the retrograde truth, make an extravagant gesture to abolish the segregated bathrooms on campus—maybe take a sledgehammer to that colored ladies restroom sign, because what’s the point of a symbol if the audience has to work (at all) to get it?

Possibly, I’m making Hidden Figures sound worse than it is.  The movie has some entertainment value.  Its stars are appealing.  It provides many of the pleasures we go to Hollywood movies for in the first place.  Predictability, because it prevents the buildup of tension, can be a source of comfort.  If you’re looking for easy uplift and you want a story that won’t do anything to jangle your nerves after a hard week at work—I mean, if you’re looking for a painless moviegoing experience—you could do worse than buy a ticket to see Hidden Figures.  But a movie that claims to be “based on true events” and then tells a story that’s entirely too good to be true, is fundamentally irresponsible and should be called out as such.

Hollywood too often uses “based on true events” the way real estate agents use “cozy.”  Technically accurate, it’s basically verbal sleight of hand, a facile attempt to claim both poetic license (in that noncommittal “based on”) and the authority of the factual (“true events”).  Truth, however, whether couched in fact or fiction, is beyond such hairsplitting. In failing to imagine as real, fully formed people the African American pioneers who helped win the Space Race, the makers of Hidden Figures have broken a contract they seem not to have realized they signed in the first place—a contract with us and with Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, among surely many others.

At this particular moment in our development as a nation, with the stink of the so-called “alt-right” in the air, there are a lot of people inclined to dismiss any story of black achievement as so much “politically correct” spin, and Hidden Figures, with its rejection of nuance and complexity, in its basic lack of conviction, only facilitates their bad faith.  Goble, Vaughn, Jackson, et al., deserve better, and so do we.

About Harold Davis