I come down on a film like “Hidden Figures” the hardest because I can see how smart and well intentioned it is. But I can also see where it stumbles, and it should too. That’s why I’m tough on films like this: not because they’re bad, but because they could be better and they have no right not to be.
“Figures” primary concern and purpose is to tell the story of its three protagonists; Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). The three were integral members of the team at NASA that helped launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space and orbit around the Earth. Essentially, they helped the USA win the Space Race. But they were African-American women, and history has overlooked them, instead favoring the accomplishments of white men like Glenn. “Figures” seeks to remedy this, and thus isn’t so much an example of counter history, but of filling in the gaps of history. It gives us the whole picture for the first time, and it’s a laudable cinematic statement, asserting that black history is American history, not a separate, niche offshoot of it. And it’s an admirable and necessary statement to make. But the film never lets you forget that it’s making it, and feels far too proud of itself for doing so.
Almost every scene in this film is there to serve the purpose of illustrating its didactic point. Again, it’s a good point to make, but a movie isn’t supposed to be a history textbook, it’s supposed to be a work of art. And art is found in complexities and nuances, in how it can reflect our world back onto us, or in its insights into the human psyche. None of that is to be found in “Hidden Figures.” There’s no room for ambiguities, reducing its characters to stereotypes and mouthpieces for modern political concerns. It would have been nice if the filmmakers had simply told the story as it was, and left a door open for the viewer to make interpretations and draw conclusions based on history.
It also panders to certain members of its audience. The film makes it far too easy for white audience members to write off the segregated reality it depicts as a thing of the past, and for them to identify with characters like Glenn and Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). These are two “enlightened” white people, characters that are meant to act as models for how a white person should handle racism. Most white viewers are going to see themselves as these two, without realizing that they would, given the cultural environment, actually be more like the casual racists Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) or Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) if they were living in those times. Ultimately, the films approach to race is really meant to alleviate the audiences white guilt. One of the most memorable and eye-roll-inducing scenes involves Costner’s character literally taking a crowbar to racist segregation.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its virtues. There’s one scene with Spencer and Dunst that perfectly encapsulates the comforting lie that some white people tell themselves to avoid feeling guilty over their perpetuation and complicity in systemic racism, (Dunst: “I want you to know that I don’t hold anything against you.” Spencer: “I know you think you don’t”). The fact that the film is also telling itself a version of this very lie is frustrating, but it’s still an enjoyable moment.
And I’ll admit, the movie entertaining as hell. The pacing is perfect and the three leads are exceptional. Spencer brings her trademark fierceness, Henson a soapy pathos and Monae, the film’s breakout, is buoyantly vibrant. They’re the best part of the film, and lend personality and life to some very thin characters.
But “Figures” pats itself, and its “progressive” audience, on the back far too much. The film’s most moving moment is a photograph of the real life Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. The image of a heroic black woman who faced racism and segregation to send humanity to the stars, being honored by our nations first black President is undeniably powerful. If you know the tropes of historical films like this, you might have guessed that the photograph is shown over the end credits. It’s emblematic of the film itself. What’s most potent and important about “Hidden Figures” isn’t anything in the actual movie, but the extra-textual history and politics that surround it. It’s fine, but few of its greatest virtues can actually be attributed to the film itself.