Hidden Figures, the story of three black, female mathematicians making history in the sixties, is one hell of a crowd-pleaser. And I don’t mean that as an insult! The film, a sweeping rendition of a (mostly) true story, succeeds in putting smiles on its audience’s faces. Those smiles have translated to Oscar nominations and impressive box office receipts. The school I work at is planning an excursion for our students, and I can’t help but hope they’ll be truly inspired by the achievements, resolve and dedication of the film’s three protagonists, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Sure, the film has issues – mostly around cohesion – but in the face of what this film represents, they seem comparatively inconsequential.
To create a big, crowd-pleasing movie like this, you need lots of big moments. Henson delivering a fiery speech to her boss (Kevin Costner). Monáe slyly manipulating a judge to win the right to be the first black female to become an engineer. Spencer victoriously marching her team of “coloured computers” (black women tasked with crunching NASA’s numbers) towards the new IBM mainframe. Stirring, invigorating moments. Most of which act as middle fingers in the air to sexism or, more prominently, racism.
The film’s approach to racism is comparatively broad – no surprise given it’s a film by a woman of colour adapted by a couple of white people – but still feels like a substantial evolution upon the recent history of ‘prestige’ racism pictures. Granted, there are still ‘good’ white folk (Costner’s character, Al Harrison, a composite; Glen Powell’s distractingly-handsome John Glenn) and ‘bad’ white folk (Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst), but racism is considered with nuance. It can be overt and violent – as seen on the news – or subtly insidious, grounded in office politics and fears of obsolescence.
The screenplay’s smartest choice is to largely operate as an office drama, with the quest to say, get a man into space, secondary to struggles for professional recognition. While this lends Hidden Figures a sense of unity, that crumbles somewhat on retrospect. There’s just too much going on. Two hours isn’t sufficient to capture the sweep of the space race, of Jim Crow laws, of the civil rights movement, of these particular mathematical challenges and find time for smaller moments of domesticity.
Rather than leave one element all together, the screenplay tries to fit everything in. It works fine in the moment, but in retrospect it’s hard not to wish that some elements had been more meaningfully developed. (That said, there is a certain pleasure in seeing the husband character – played here by the incredible Mahershala Ali – reduced to a supporting character, rather than the wife.) The biggest loss, for me, is that the chemistry between the three leads soon trickles away as their three sub-plots take them in three different – if thematically linked – directions. But really, I wanted more of everything: more time spent with these three ladies, more insight into the civil rights movement, even more of the mathematical particulars. When the biggest criticism that you can direct towards a film is that there’s not enough of it, you’re on a winner.
Even Hidden Figure’s broadest moments (“We all pee the same colour here,” really?) are salvaged by its cast. No big surprise that they big up the SAG Best Ensemble award. The leading ladies are simply excellent. Spencer earned an Academy Award nomination for her steadfastness anchored by a subtle emotionality. The way her eyes well up, just a little, when she confronts Dunst! Henson isn’t perhaps the most convincing on-screen mathematician I’ve ever seen, but damn if she doesn’t sell the big, swinging-for-the-rafters moments. My favourite, though, has to be Monáe. Not only does she look wonderful – preternaturally pretty, impeccably attired – she buoys her tiny role with an effervescent charm that makes you desperate to see more of her on the silver screen.
Who knows if we will. Monáe is, of course, best known for her work as a musician. She contributes to the soundtrack here with “Isn’t This The World”, alongside a bunch of tracks from Pharrell Williams (credited, alongside Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, for the music). That soundtrack is maybe the best thing about the film. Like the film itself, it finds the midpoint between the soulful sixties and modern mores and is just a whole heap of fun. I’ve already listened to the soundtrack album a couple of times; walking out of the cinema, you’ll want to do the same.