Release Date: December 10th, 2016 (SVA Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Theodore Melfi
Written by: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Based on: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Music by: Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films, 20th Century Fox, 127 Minutes
“There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrisson. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” – Katherine Johnson
I was really looking forward to seeing Hidden Figures. It is a film that tells the true story of the black women who were instrumental in helping NASA get John Glen into space and eventually, getting a man on the moon.
It starred a very capable cast, had a director that impressed me with St. Vincent and really looked to be a film that had all the right things going for it. There really could be only one major thing that might disrupt what should have been a solid film. Sadly, it is that one thing that holds this picture back: heavy handedness.
Going into this film, you know it is about black struggle and not just black struggle but the struggle of women in Civil Rights era America. The whole film itself is the point, the premise is the point. However, the film, as is so common with pictures with similar themes as of late, has to remind you at every single turn that these women are persecuted against. I get it. We all get it. But every single time a white person walks into frame doesn’t mean that there needs to be some sort of hostility towards these black women. Not every single white person was an asshole. If they were, the Civil Rights movement couldn’t have happened. Lots of people were more than just tolerant of blacks and it was those people that helped to usher in Civil Rights. I hate to be all soapbox-y but I feel like films that use this tactic, which is all too common, kind of dismiss the fact that there were good people on all sides of the racial spectrum that wanted equality and respect for all people.
Frankly, this film also cheapens the importance of the work that Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson did at NASA by harping most specifically on the race issues. Hidden Figures actually takes some narrative liberties and just makes some shit up to enhance its need to focus on the racism in the film.
One example that I’ll give is Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is actually three different people pushed together into one character. He’s the “nice yet still casually racist white person that needs something to open his eyes” archetype that these sort of films all have. I guess Kirsten Dunst is the same thing too. Anyway, Costner’s Harrision is smacked in the face by a truth bomb from a very frustrated Katherine (in a tremendous moment of acting by Taraji P. Henson, mind you) about the racist bullshit at NASA. So Harrision walks down to the Colored Women’s Bathroom and violently knocks down the sign in front of a crowd of whites on one side and blacks on the other. Then he proclaims that there are no more colored toilets and no more white toilets at NASA. It’s a great feel good moment in the film but it never really happened and the whole subplot about Katherine having to run a half mile with mountains of files just to pee a few times a day, isn’t accurate. Segregated bathrooms at NASA were abolished in 1958, this film takes place in 1961.
I don’t want to be the asshole that just dwells on this shit but the point is, this had the makings of a beautiful and great film had it stuck to solid truths and focused on these women’s actual contributions and their incredible minds. Yes, that stuff is in this film but it doesn’t seem to be the most important statement. This is a picture trying to make a political and social statement about Civil Rights America and the racial divide that still exists on a level even today but there are already dozens, if not hundreds of films that have been tackling the subject for decades.
Point being, if you are an American, you know all of this. You don’t need it spelled out to you every second like your getting your first history lesson. And if you are a decent person, which I believe most people are, you already reject racism and bigotry against all types of people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or what have you.
The acting in this movie was pretty damn good. Especially from the three female leads but none of them have really disappointed me in anything that they’ve done thus far. I also loved Mahershala Ali in this and he’s becoming one of my favorite actors working today. He’s just got this electric charisma and he’s a stunning looking man with a powerful presence.
It was weird seeing Jim Parsons in this because I have never seen him in anything outside of The Big Bang Theory. I’d like to see him get other work, as his character of Sheldon Cooper is already one of the most iconic characters in television history. While I liked him in this, his NASA engineer character just seemed like an unfunny and bigoted version of Sheldon.
Despite my criticisms, I definitely liked this film more than it may appear. It was well made, well acted and was about science and history. I just wish that it would have been more accurate and focused on telling a story instead of feeling the need to make a statement we’ve all already seen countless times over and are very well aware of.
Pairs well with: For similar themes about the black struggle leading up to and through the Civil Rights era: A Raisin in the Sun, The Great Debaters, Malcolm X… there are so many.