Hidden Figures does a lot right in regards to its story”

by Steve Pulaski

Watch Steve’s supplemental video review at the bottom of this article.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain why Hidden Figures will without a doubt be embraced by a moviegoing public. For one, it’s a public that, far and beyond, has been starved for an emotionally uplifting story about women of color – or women in general – triumphing the odds and becoming, not only recognized as equal, but as or more powerful than their white male counterparts. Hidden Figures, like last year’s Queen of Katwe, has much of what the populous has been pleading for, much of their pleas either falling on deaf ears or prompting projects that aren’t as readily accessible to their audiences.

When the applause broke out at the end of my showing of Hidden Figures, my assumption was confirmed; this was the film many people demanded and they finally got.

Bear in mind, I was someone who demanded a film like this too, not only to gauge a different perspective, but also in hopes that I’d be presented with a “true story” or at least a story that didn’t take place during World War II-era America or something that has been iterated several times before. My marginal disappointment with Hidden Figuresas a film comes in the regard that despite this being a feel-good, crowd-pleaser during a dreaded, cold time of the year, it’s a film that, I feel, will have a lot of its problems excused because its concept is fresh and in-demand right now. The latter I can wholly accept, but the former I simply can’t, at least not without a few reservations being expressed.

Hidden Figures
Directed by
Theodore Melfi
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Release Date
6 January 2016
Steve’s Grade: C+

The film recounts the story of three African-American mathematicians – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – who are responsible for calculating every meticulous little thing pertaining to NASA and its space shuttle operations. The ladies work in the segregated West Area Computers, using dated equipment in addition to race-segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains in 1960 Virginia. Eventually, Katherine gets promoted to work on the frontlines of the space race mission to beat Russia in sending a spacecraft and a man to space and eventually the moon, under the instruction of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his right-hand-man Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).

The main objective for the ladies is to send astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space to successfully orbit the Earth, mainly before Russia has a chance to make a move bigger and hedge the United States in a heated competition that proves timeliness and competence. In the meantime, while Katherine is busy crunching numbers and trying to maintain a family, Dorothy becomes the first African-American supervisor at NASA, with Mary working under her and trying to help her lady-friends succeed.

Hidden Figures does a lot right in regards to its story, for it’s a film that portrays moments of discrimination and outrage amongst the ladies, particularly Katherine, who has a key outburst at Al late in the film, particularly well. These kinds of moments are buoyed by strong acting by the charismatic leads, obviously, but are sort of undercut by cheaply employed, “standout” moments of Al dismantling the “COLOREDS ONLY” sign that overhangs the bathroom with a sledgehammer, or screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s decisions to infuse many moments with scene-ending punchlines or quips that made me feel like I’m watching Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s the most obvious way to communicate to your audience that you’re unsure of how to end the scene or feel that ending it on a dramatic highpoint might make the overall experience too serious.

In addition, the Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch score feels decidedly more Zimmer than it does Pharrell, especially in key emotional moments. Consider the marriage proposal scene that’s dramatically inert largely because we don’t know the husband-to-be enough (nor should he really even be in this film). This is the kind of frequent issues that arise with Hidden Figures that work to disrupt its conceptual strength, as well as the three leading actresses, who are throwing themselves into material that is axiomatic in how much it means to them.

I would never steer a person away from seeing this picture, largely because I feel it features a lot of what people are begging Hollywood to include in future projects and that it’s a feel-good film that can detract from the dour mood in which America is currently, but giving Hidden Figures a pass by ignoring its obvious issues isn’t the way to do that. It’s a good film with some obvious deterrents; even as happy as we might be, let’s not overlook the things on which we judge other films.