‘Hidden Figures’ review – One for the history books

Hidden Figures tells a story worth telling – the little-known, true story behind the unrecognised African-American women, who helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space in the 60s. The central figure among these women being Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) who was a geometric analyst, smarter than anyone at NASA, including her fellow “computers” Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Katherine Johnston finds herself working with the fictional director Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to launch a rocket into space. She eventually has to overcome the struggles of being both black and a woman in that environment, before eventually being allowed into confidential meetings in order to plan the trajectory, which brought the first American to reach outer space, back to Earth.

The premise of this film alone should be enough to make for an inspirational, hard-hitting drama about the inhumanity of segregation-era America. However, the screenwriters, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (also the director) fail to grasp the true gravity of the topic they are covering. While this film is competently shot, being deprived of something as simple as going to the bathroom or getting coffee in your place of work should be portrayed as tragic. Instead, for most of the film these things are played for laughs, with Taraji P. Henson running back and forth from her office to the toilets, while Pharrell Williams sings his upbeat song, Runnin’. This approach therefore leaves the tone inconsistent and makes the moments which should hit home fall flat.

Another thing which makes Hidden Figures messy is the number of subplots which bog the film down and drag it out to be longer than it has to be. While necessary, Katherine’s relationship with Colonel Johnson (Mahershala Ali) did not unfold naturally, despite the two actors having great chemistry. It also seemed that every time Mary Jackson’s husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), was onscreen he would be talking about the brutal treatment of black people in the country at the time, and yet nothing ever came of it, which further contributed to the problem this film had with tone. However the worst offender of these subplots would be Dorothy Vaughan’s struggle against a prejudiced manager at NASA (Kirsten Dunst) to become…a supervisor. I understand that for a black woman in 1960s America, any career goal was considered ambitious, but next to calculating the trajectory of the first American into space and becoming the first black engineer, it is hard to be invested in a character’s goal of becoming a supervisor.

The actors worked well with what they were given which in the case of Henson and Monáe is disappointingly little. Their roles often lie on either side of the spectrum of the ‘sassy black woman’ to the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype spectrum, with no exploration in between for actual depth. The saving grace might be the undeniable chemistry between all the actors. I felt the kinship between the three protagonists, and I really enjoyed the banter between Henson and Ali, as well as the other couple, Hodge and Monáe, both of which felt like genuine partnerships. The dynamic between Henson and Costner also allowed for a number of great moments. In fact, Kevin Costner had the most sincere moments in this film and played them brilliantly, which is a shame considering the stand out performances in this film should be those of the three female protagonists.

The bottom line is this film does not do much to further the cause of raising awareness to the struggles that African-Americans face and so is more problematic than inspirational. This is a film that uses its subject matter as a crutch to gain good publicity, attract audiences into the theatre, and (dare I say it) win the sympathy vote at the Oscar’s. It didn’t provide the role of writer or director to one of the many more deserving African-Americans working in the industry, it didn’t have anything poignant to say about the treatment of African-Americans today and it didn’t even have many moments for the talented black actors and actresses, who star in this film, to shine.

When seeing a film during January in England, you will find one of two things: a film, fresh off its Oscar campaign tour of America…or a really terrible film, which the studio didn’t even want you to see. Fortunately for me, when I bought a £5 ticket for Screen Unseen (an event at select Odeon Cinemas to see an upcoming film without knowing what it is) I got this Oscar contender. Unfortunately for me, it was not a particularly good Oscar contender. While Hidden Figures may well have been a story which had to be told, it ultimately felt like an inconsistent mess.

Written by Sam Packer

 

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