Are we slowly seeing the burgeoning of a new sub-genre? Something along the lines of “science is fucking awesome,” with recent entries being The Martian and Arrival. But there’s also something of a corrective action at play throughout Hidden Figures as it celebrates things that have been systematically oppressed – women and minorities most obviously.
While Hidden Figures is a solidly made feel good experience, there is a certain sheen of falseness that pervades all of these types of films. The micro-aggressions and casual racism and misogyny these women face make them heroic in my mind for not going insane in the face of it, but the film demands a heroic white male savior to clear the way for progress. Kevin Costner’s gruff boss destroying the labelled bathrooms is engineered to make the audience cheer (which it did during the screening I watched while I rolled my eyes), and it feels like a false note in a film that has so much good will and positivity radiating from it.
At least Hidden Figures doesn’t break its white characters into noble types and cartoon racist like The Help, instead allowing for several of them to casually demonstrate bias behind the justification of “that’s just how things are.” This feels far more realistic, and it is these moments that make better impressions throughout, especially for the subtle shifts in characters that appear throughout. Like Octavia Spencer confronting Kirsten Dunst in a bathroom that eventually leads to Dunst having Spencer promoted to supervisor of the IBM computing machine.
Even better is the casualness of the obstacles they must overcome to simply do their jobs. The casualness of the sexism, white men in suits get the higher paying jobs built on the backs of the calculations of the women, and the women never get the credit. You root for them to succeed, to slowly dismantle the system, to get the credit for their hard won battles and incredibly valuable contributions. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the underpaid de facto supervisor of the Colored Computers, and she makes herself invaluable (along with her girls) by learning how to program and run the IBM machine. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) sues to attend an all-white engineering program so that she can become NASA’s first black female engineer. While a bulk of the film focuses in on Katharine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a mathematical genius who fights for her place in the effort to launch John Glenn into space.
The consistent obstructionism is a solid source of dramatic tension, and Hidden Figures is a tonic that we need right now. Not only does it make the argument for progressive ideals like equality and how we’re stronger together, but it places the crux of its arguments on quips like “the numbers don’t lie.” We need this film to remind us when American values are at their greatest, and hopefully some good will come of this film in an influx of young black girls going into STEM education. My day job is at an aerospace engineering and earth science research center tied to a university, and the field desperately needs more diversity. A film like Hidden Figures shows young girls that yes, it is possible, and I dream that its lasting legacy will be a noticeable uptick down the line.
Hidden Figures strongest asset comes in the form of its impeccable ensemble players. I mean no disrespect to Octavia Spencer’s second Oscar nomination for her work here, but why is she the lone player singled out? It feels a bit like favoritism to a former winner over other worthy players that deserved equal consideration. Janelle Monae is equally strong (maybe even stronger), and this may be Henson’s best screen work to date. Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, and Kevin Costner are all reliably solid. Mahershala Ali, having a banner year, is slightly underserved here, but he’s so good that I would watch him do just about anything. They make the material soar high even when its writing dips into predictability or pat morality.
Even if I don’t think it’s a perfect movie, I can’t begrudge it any of its nominations. It’s too important, and lesser films have been nominated for more or won. I just hope that the box office dominance and high praise for this film provide something of a siren call for more diverse films. Now, if we could only do something about the white savior trope.