Just ’cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016)

In times when an escapist musical such as La La Land is being widely lauded as the film “we all need right now,” Hidden Figures is essential viewing

Hidden Figures


Di­rect­ed by Theodore Melfi. Writ­ten by Theodore Melfi and Al­li­son Schroed­er, based on “Hid­den Fig­ures: The Sto­ry of the African-Amer­i­can Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Mar­got Lee Shet­ter­ly. Star­ring Tara­ji P. Hen­son, Oc­tavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Cost­ner, Kirsten Dun­st, Jim Par­sons, Glen Pow­ell, Ma­her­sha­la Ali and Ald­is Hodge.

One of the most an­noy­ing things we com­mon­ly see in Hol­ly­wood biopics is how they tend to fol­low a cheap, unimag­i­na­tive for­mu­la and gen­er­al­ly cater to the most ba­sic, un­de­mand­ing de­sires of a main­stream au­di­ence. It was not long ago that we saw the pub­lic fall for mediocre movies like The The­o­ry of Every­thing (2014), The Im­i­ta­tion Game (2014) and even The Dan­ish Girl (2015), all of which seemed ex­clu­sive­ly con­ceived to win as many awards as pos­si­ble but showed very lit­tle artis­tic qual­i­ty apart from their sump­tu­ous pro­duc­tion and ac­claimed per­for­mances. Hid­den Fig­ures does some­thing re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent though, avoid­ing the typ­i­cal clichés and any of that pa­tron­iz­ing crap that plagues most films made by white men about African-Amer­i­cans, like The Blind Side (2009) and The Help (2011).

Adapt­ed from Mar­got Lee Shetterly’s non-fic­tion book Hid­den Fig­ures: The Sto­ry of the African-Amer­i­can Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, the film re­counts the sto­ry of Kather­ine G. John­son (Tara­ji P. Hen­son), Dorothy Vaugh­an (Oc­tavia Spencer) and Mary Jack­son (Janelle Monáe), three bril­liant African-Amer­i­can women who worked as “com­put­ers” in the seg­re­gat­ed West Area Com­put­ers di­vi­sion of NASA and would play in 1961 a de­ci­sive role in the US space pro­gram. While Mary is por­trayed as a black woman who dreams of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer and Dorothy (who is the ac­tive su­per­vi­sor of the di­vi­sion) is strug­gling to be of­fi­cial­ly pro­mot­ed, Kather­ine is as­signed as the very first “col­ored” woman in the Space Task Group to as­sist with the cal­cu­la­tions for the launch of as­tro­naut John Glenn into or­bit.

De­pict­ing with­out sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty the racial and gen­der ob­sta­cles that these women en­counter on a reg­u­lar ba­sis in their lives, Hid­den Fig­ures un­der­stands the hard­ship of be­ing a Ne­gro woman in the 1960s. We see in the be­gin­ning of the film a po­lice­man who treats them in a racist (and sex­ist) way only un­til he finds out they work for NASA — and his sud­den change in con­duct is just as symp­to­matic as their joke about be­ing three Ne­gro women chas­ing a white po­lice of­fi­cer down a high­way af­ter he of­fers to es­cort them to the agency. Like­wise, it is easy to un­der­stand Dorothy’s frus­tra­tion every time her re­quest to be made of­fi­cial su­per­vi­sor is de­nied or why Mary would be so skep­ti­cal about her own chances of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer, ac­knowl­edg­ing the fact that if she were a white male, she would al­ready be one.

Hav­ing to con­stant­ly prove them­selves with such a huge re­spon­si­bil­i­ty in their hands but no ca­reer prospects ahead of them, these women are seen by their white col­leagues al­most as a sideshow at­trac­tion. Their seg­re­ga­tion is es­pe­cial­ly em­pha­sized by the strik­ing con­trast be­tween the col­or­ful West Area Com­put­ers and the rig­or­ous-look­ing Space Task Group. While the for­mer is shown as co­zi­er and more joy­ful in its rather cramped space, with a warmer palette and the black women wear­ing in­tense col­ors, the lat­ter looks wider and spar­tan with its washed-out col­ors and all of the (white) men wear­ing plain white shirts. Af­ter Kather­ine joins the Group, the vi­brant col­ors she wears stand out amid those men, and the way they look at her (which made me think of a zoo) helps in­crease our dis­com­fort for her sit­u­a­tion.

The beau­ti­ful col­or scheme also il­lus­trates each character’s per­son­al­i­ty and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween them. At one mo­ment, Kather­ine and her boyfriend Jim John­son (Ma­her­sha­la Ali) wear dif­fer­ent shades of green that show us with el­e­gance that they are on the same wave­length. And Kirsten Dunst’s char­ac­ter Vi­vian Mitchell, who is al­ways sub­tly hos­tile to­wards Dorothy (a clear ex­am­ple of aver­sive racism), wears dark­er clothes un­til the end when she fi­nal­ly steps down her hos­til­i­ty and ap­pears in light col­ors. In this scene, by the way, no­tice how Vi­vian and Dorothy are framed at a cer­tain dis­tance from each oth­er. The space that sep­a­rates them tells us a lot about the world of dif­fer­ence be­tween the two women, which is vi­su­al­ly re­in­forced by a world map that can be seen be­tween them on the wall in the back.

Us­ing the gra­cious dy­nam­ics be­tween the three women as a nar­ra­tive an­chor amid the whole dis­crim­i­na­tion they face every­day, Hid­den Fig­ures ben­e­fits from stel­lar per­for­mances. The star is def­i­nite­ly Tara­ji P. Hen­son, who even shines in a won­der­ful scene when Kather­ine ex­plodes af­ter hav­ing to en­dure so much hu­mil­i­a­tion on a dai­ly ba­sis. It makes me won­der why Hen­son didn’t re­ceive an Os­car nom­i­na­tion. And while Janelle Monáe com­pos­es Mary as an ob­vi­ous­ly in­tel­li­gent and vi­va­cious woman who gets some of the most hi­lar­i­ous lines in the film, Oc­tavia Spencer is per­fect as a nat­ur­al leader who im­me­di­ate­ly re­al­izes what is wrong with an IBM ma­chine that doesn’t work — and her care­ful com­po­si­tion is miles above the car­i­ca­ture she played in The Help (which un­fair­ly won her an Os­car).

It is true that the movie has a few ir­ri­tat­ing clichés (like Kather­ine ad­mit­ting to John­son that she al­most for­got how to kiss a man), but they are com­pen­sat­ed by sub­tler mo­ments — and I love how Katherine’s boss Al Har­ri­son (Kevin Cost­ner) says “good work, gen­tle­men” to his team, un­know­ing­ly dis­re­gard­ing the fact that there is a woman now among them. And un­like The Im­i­ta­tion Game, one of the best qual­i­ties in Hid­den Fig­ures is that it cares to show us the math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions and tech­ni­cal de­tails of the work per­formed at NASA in­stead of just in­sult­ing our in­tel­li­gence and tak­ing for grant­ed our en­gage­ment with a sub­ject that not every­one un­der­stands. But let me make it clear, I’m not de­fend­ing tech­nob­a­b­ble, just that at least some ex­pla­na­tion about the char­ac­ters’ work is nec­es­sary.

Smart and touch­ing, Hid­den Fig­ures is an im­por­tant film that rec­og­nizes the in­dis­pens­able work that these women did at the back­stage of a world ruled by white men. And in a year when an es­capist, for­mu­la­ic mu­si­cal like La La Land is be­ing wide­ly laud­ed by many as the movie “we all need right now,” I say think again. What we need right now is more films like this one here.

Feb­ru­ary 18, 2017


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