Hidden Figures (2016)

Directed by Theodore Melfi

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Okay, fuck this, I just wrote a whole review for this film, and it didn’t save, and I lost it.  Godammit.  I don’t really feel like writing this all again, but maybe I can summarize my points and write something much more concise.

Hidden Figures is Oscar-bait.  I don’t mean that in a negative way even if it sounds as if it is.  There is a whole genre of Oscar-bait movies.  These are stories, often based on real events, that gloss over certain details to tell a certain story that will make us feel empowered.  Side note, I don’t consider a movie like Hell or High Water or Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea Oscar-bait.  There are movies that win awards, movies that want to win awards, and some that do both.

Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser, and like other Oscar-bait movies (from now referred to as OB movies), it positions us to always root for the character no matter what.  In movies like these, the main character often doesn’t grow or develop as much as the people around him or her.  In this movie, we root passionately for Katherine, Dorothy and Mary (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae), but they never change.  At the start they know what they’re capable of, as do we, and then they prove it to the establishment around them.

Their circumstances change, certainly, but the people who change the most are the ones who see what they’re capable of and start to question their own biases, racism and sexism.  This is all well and good, but it seems common of OB movies for the protagonist to fight against all that is unjust and for us to root for that person.  We never have to question what an OB protagonist is doing.  They are right, that’s all that matters.  In other words there is little to no nuance.

In Hidden Figures, much of the racism is addressed early on, and that works in the film’s favor, because then it can move on to some of the specifics of what these women were working towards.  Around halfway or so into this movie, Henson delivers a OB speech which is a very well-acted, passionate moment, and this moment, in another version of the movie, would be the climax.  Here it’s the midpoint, and the climax deals with what Katherine Goble is working towards.  This makes the climax of Hidden Figures stand apart from race.  It’s a human story, then, not a racial one, even if racism is very much a part of it.

Other movies have to give you a reason to root for the protagonist, but in OB movies it’s assumed from the start that we will root for these characters.  Hidden Figures offers an opening scene that accomplishes several things and, typical of OB movies, probably never happened.  Like Patriot’s Day, which I watched the same day as this one, the opening scene tells us something about the character and the world of the story.  In many ways it’s a shortcut, ensuring that we understand the protagonist, and in many cases it’s unnecessary.  In Hidden Figures, though, this scene works very well.

In it, the three lead characters bicker as they try to fix their broken down car.  A racist white cop shows up and questions what they’re doing, but when he learns that they work for NASA he is quickly won over by them.  It’s surprising how quickly he is won over, but it’s nice to see, even if it’s a bit optimistic.  The cop is so won over, in fact, that he decides to escort the women to NASA.  They laugh about the events, and boom we’re in the movie.

This scene tells us a lot, about the character dynamics, the world of 1961, the jovial spirit of the movie itself and the optimism inherent in this movie.

But as an OB movie, Hidden Figures never gives a chance to know these characters but gives us plenty of chances to root for them.  To me, Katherine, Dorothy and Mary never felt real.  They’re just vehicles for wholesome goodness whom we root for more because of the obvious forces working against them.  We see someone treated badly, and just like that have empathy for them.  This is works well within the movie, because, again, this is an OB movie, but I’m left with a feeling that all OB movies are somewhat limited.

Hidden Figures could never delve into Katherine’s personal struggles and flaws because this movie isn’t about that.  It’s about bigger forces and change that made the world better.  As a period piece, and one that deals in racism, it gives the audience a high horse from which to watch the story.  We already know racism is bad, and my point is again that OB movies are restrained.  They all end up telling the same story, even if the specifics change.

We root for the wholesome vehicle of goodness as they fight against the repressive, outdated establishment.  Another movie like this, from what I recall, is The Pursuit of Happyness.  It’s a movie in which Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, and in the movie he’s perfect, he just has to deal with a world that isn’t.  One of the feelings of OB movies always seems to be that if everyone was like the protagonist, the world would be some kind of paradise.

But then you research the real man that Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness is based on, and you find this…

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Whether or not that’s all true, it’s clear that certain details have been left out because they tamper with the intended image of the protagonist and thus the film.

When people react against Hollywood movies, they’re thinking of OB movies, of which Hidden Figures happens to be a good one.  I really enjoyed watching this movie, but I knew what to expect.  Some OB movies are terrible, and some are really good.  This is a really good one, but that also means that a lot was left our or unexplored.  The critique then is more on the nature of OB movies than on Hidden Figures, because dammit I wanted Katherine, Dorothy and Mary to beat those fuckers, and they sure did.

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