Did you know that black people weren’t treated very well in the United States in the 60s? It’s true! They had to sit in the backs of buses. They had separate bathrooms. They had their own drinking fountains, classrooms, and lunchrooms. Boy, it sure is a great thing that none of that is true today!
Forgive me for being glib. But Hidden Figures, the new film from Theodore Melfi (whose St Vincent I quite liked) treats racism with a simplistic bluntness that’s difficult to take completely seriously. It tells the story of three black women, all geniuses in some way, who help NASA with their first manned space mission. Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer play Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn, respectively—mathematicians whose aptitude and drive far outpace their white, male counterparts. Janelle Monáe, that great R&B/Soul artist, plays Mary Jackson, an engineer trying to advance in her field.
If you’ve seen the trailers, or The Help, you know what you’re in for: scenes of our ladies facing easily-recognisable sexism and discrimination, taking it all in graceful stride, slowly earning the grudging respect of their colleagues through their intellectual prowess. And all, incredibly, in an alternate universe in which no one in the 1960s ever smoked. WYSIWYG.
I know that Hidden Figures is based on a true story, so please don’t bring this up in protest. Melfi is clearly making a nonfiction film, but the filter is his, so let’s not treat it as documentary. He’s very precise in how he frames the events.
Remember the scene in Almost Famous, where the Rolling Stone editor makes the joke that he’s going to send over a few pages ‘via this new thing called a fax machine. It only takes 18 minutes per page!’ See that’s funny because now fax machines work so much faster! There’s a similar joke in the musical 42nd Street, which takes place in the 1930s: a character points out into the theatre and says ‘We gotta give ‘em a good show—they’re paying fifty cents a seat out there!’ See, that’s funny because Broadway ticket prices are so much more expensive now!
Almost every example of discrimination in Hidden Figures is pitched at that level. It’s Theodore Melfi jabbing you in the ribs, raising his eyebrows and saying, ‘Boy, can you believe that?’ It makes the disgusting racism that the main characters have to go through distant and safe—something that happened in another world. Henson running across campus to get to the coloured restroom, Spencer getting thrown out of the white section of a library, Monáe unable to attend a segregated school; all these examples land as some kind of muted punchline. This completely absolves the audience of any responsibility to understand this is actually an ongoing problem.
Unfortunately the film is not only simplistic in its depiction of racism, but also of power. Aldis Hodge’s character in one scene says ‘You can’t wait around for the people in power to give you respect. You must demand it!’ After that scene, literally every single time one of the women confront and demand respect from an oppressor, they get it. Immediately. Then the film simply moves on. This is… not the way the world works, though it is a comforting narrative.
And it’s a narrative I could be okay with, if Hidden Figures didn’t almost present a nuanced view in Kevin Costner’s character. He plays the director of the Space Task Group, which oversees the mathematicians’ calculations. One day he shouts at Katherine for leaving during large swaths of the day, when she should be at her desk calculating. She shouts back: there’s no restroom for her in the building, and the nearest one is half a mile away! It takes time to get there and back! The next scene is Costner destroying the ‘Colored Restroom’ sign with a crowbar. ‘No more coloured restrooms,’ he says. ‘We all pee the same colour here, so use any toilet you want—just make sure it’s the one closest to your desk!’
Why did Costner put up with the separate restroom in the first place? Because it’s just How Things Are. He never thought much about it. Just like he never thought much about Katherine’s skin colour in the first place. He saw a brilliant mathematician helping him do his job, and when something hindered her ability to do that, he fixed it. The cause of that hindrance and its broader implications don’t matter to him. His racism is completely unconscious, impersonal. The idea that racism exists until it becomes inconvenient for the establishment is… well, closer to the truth, though far less empowering.
But Hidden Figures is more a fairy tale than a serious examination of its issues. This is Theodore Melfi’s movie, and we must accept the possibility that this is actually how he sees the world. What his simplicity accomplishes is to make the film palatable for children and families, which may have been what he was going for.
In spite of all I’ve said, I do recommend it. It is, above all, an excuse to watch the three leading ladies at work. They all brilliantly ensoul their characters, and each commands the screen when in frame. I was dubious of its SAG nomination until I saw it; the acting is phenomenal, with Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst filling out the stellar cast.
In the end, the acting is the strongest element, with Mandy Walker’s clear, unadorned images a close second. What we have here is a nice, gentle, amenable film about overcoming sickening acts of racism and sexism. That may be enough for you, and that’s okay. I’m not convinced these subjects should be safe, and let the audience off the hook as Melfi does.
Hidden Figures contains a great story. I just wish that Melfi had told it to adults, and not just to children.