There are certain things that film, in all its versatility and creativity, still struggles to convey in an interesting manner. Stories focusing on mathematics, science and technology, even in the hands of the most skilled directors, stumble in depicting such cerebral acts in a truly cinematic style. There’s only so many times audiences can watch po-faced actors staring intently at screens or complex numbers floating from the page like bugs. Genius will forever be a topic of fascination to storytellers, but it’s a concept that seldom translates to the big screen without a few bumps along the way.
Hidden Figures has many wonderful qualities, but its ability to fully convey the genius of its three protagonists in a time and place where their achievements were consistently diminished is the ace up its sleeve. The Theodore Melfi directed historical drama, which is nominated for 3 Oscars and has the highest box office gross of this year’s Best Picture nominees, is in many ways an old-fashioned crowd pleaser, but its subject matter and focus elevate it beyond its conventional trappings.
While most historical dramas of this type focus on the lone genius – usually white and male – Hidden Figures follows three African American women working at NASA during the height of the Space Race. Each of them – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – work in the computer team, running calculations over for the top teams. This taxing work was deemed the domain of women, but the black women are still segregated to a different building. Their slow climb up the career ladder is stalled at every opportunity, from spiteful white colleagues and a system whose rules seem to change frequently just to stop their progress. A lazier film easily could have forced the story – and the weight of history – onto the shoulders of Katharine, who is moved to the Space Task Force to help with the shuttle program, but Hidden Figures shows the fight as the work of many women, not one.
As the only black woman in the Space Task Force, working under gruff engineer Al Harrison (Kevin Costner in token stern boss mode), Katherine sees her abilities stonewalled not just by the white men in her team who find her presence and intellect objectionable – to the point of actively working to hinder her work, but also finds herself diminished by the mundane realities of racism. As the civil rights movement rises on the streets, Katherine must deal with the simplest of problems, like peeing, as the only bathroom she is allowed to use is half a mile away. The harried dash to the toilet is fist played for laughs, showing Katherine scuttling on her heels, pages of figures in hand for her to work on in the few seconds she gets to sit down. Soon, as it happens over and over again, we are reminded of the insidious forms racism takes. In one scene, Katherine quietly pours herself a coffee as she works on numbers, not seeing the looks of scorn from the white men in the room: The next day, there is a rickety metal pot with “coloured” stuck to its side.
Henson has the lion’s share of big moments throughout the film, but she shines most in the quieter scenes, as Katherine finds solace through numbers, or in her sweet conversations with her future husband (Mahershala Ali, who is so charming that the film cries out for more of him). When the three leads are together – dancing in the kitchen, fixing up plates at the church picnic, working to fix their broken down car – the chemistry is palpable. All three are excellent but the star making moments come from Janelle Monae, a naturally charismatic presence who exudes seemingly limitless vivacity as Mary Jackson. It’s hard to believe that she’s only acted in two films (this and another Best Picture nominee, Moonlight) because she carries her scenes with the organic charm of a seasoned pro.
These are the things that make Hidden Figures so special. Where it fails is in its stubborn dedication to the worst of the genre. Costner’s character was not a real person. He is a composite of several figures simplified in order to easily explain NASA’s authority structure. So when he grabs a crowbar and batters down the “coloured bathroom” sign before nobly declaring that everyone at NASA pees the same colour, the moment not only feels staggeringly inauthentic but utterly unnecessary. Director Theodore Melfi has defended this inclusion of a white saviour character, arguing “There needs to be white people who do the right thing,” but this simply exacerbates a wider problem regarding how pop culture, and indeed society, handles racism. While the moment makes for a crowd-pleasing scene, it downplays the barriers put in place by the ruling white powers to diminish the black women they worked alongside.
The effervescent spirit of Hidden Figures helps it rise above such moments of alleviating guilt. It’s a film that everyone can find joy in, but for black women, it holds a special power. Stories of genius on screen are seldom told about anyone other than white men, and the excitement of seeing three intelligent, hard-working and driven black women change a system through the sheer force of their brains is tangible. Don’t let the often derogatory “crowd-pleaser” label fool you: There’s far more to this.