The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program.
Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Mahershala Ali
Rated: PG (thematic elements and some language)
By Cole Schneider
It’s no secret that America has race and gender problems. Hollywood reflects it. The Oscars reflect it. It’s not only trendy things like Hollywood’s gender wage gap or that #OscarsSoWhite; it’s that women are so often reduced to either passive roles or sexual objects and that even when great black actors are given material it’s so often in a historical narrative deaf to today’s problems. These films are expertly crafted to make the privileged feel good about themselves. Historical biopics don’t have to do this. 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton” and 2014’s “Selma” balanced triumphant progress with the sobering reality that progress remains needed. Neither received a Best Picture nod, but 2016’s “Hidden Figures” did.
“Hidden Figures” is the kind of movie middle-aged white men (studio heads, Oscar voters) love. It says, “I’m so glad we’ve all overcome this injustice!” It has Kevin Costner playing a perfect cipher to take away guilt. It underlines copious anachronisms designed to point to a past that was evil and misogynist and racist—“Oh boy, have we come a long way!,” we’re to say. I doubt Bell Hooks even bothered watching.
“Hidden Figures” has taken three accomplished, powerful stories and made them into trite clichés of a gender-equal/post-racial world, and the Oscars award it because they love awarding “issue” films that remind their (mostly white male) audience how great they are rather than challenge them. In 1989 the banal, commemorative “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture while the passionate, confrontational “Do the Right Thing” was snubbed from even a nomination, yet over 25 years later it’s the latter that has sustained its status as a great film. Until consumers demand it, Hollywoood won’t wake up.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
By Matt Greene
Three black women, who happened to be good friends, played pivotal roles in America’s first manned-trip to outer space. It’s a piece of American history that has been all but completely missing from our collective conscience. Their incredible story deserves to be told as an inspirational message of intuitiveness and perseverance, one that will touch women, minorities & anyone else with a soul. If only the filmmakers were as courageous and smart as these trailblazing women. Hidden Figures gets by solely on its being based in reality; otherwise, it’s predictable biopic filmmaking with no faith in its story or audience to connect without pandering.
It’s far from a complete disaster. It presents some interesting parallels between science and racial inequality, specifically how progress in each can look one way in the numbers & facts but then a completely different way in action. The performances are good, with Monae and Ali specifically standing out, continuing their breakout years after their gentle turns in (the much superior) Moonlight. Individual scenes work in a vacuum, specifically a particularly sweet engagement dinner. Unfortunately, it’s all covered in unbearably corny, Blindside-like dialogue and on-the-nose emotional beats.
Above all, the music is incessant and awful. A manipulative hodge-podge of modern pop, classic soul, and generically emotional scoring, it’s begging us to find the film charming. At times it is, like a late 20th-century Oscar nominee. Mostly though, its pandering emotions and generic filmmaking can’t allow it to soar to the heights it should. Hidden Figures isn’t a “bad” film; it’s just a blasé film about a decidedly un-blasé story.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars