You’ve seen Hidden Figures before. Maybe you haven’t seen this exact movie — about how three unduly unheralded African American women helped NASA in the early 1960s — but if, like me, you dutifully watch the slate of Oscar-nominated films year after year, then within ten minutes you’ll already know this movie by heart.
It features a gutsy but unorthodox protagonist trying to make a dent in a system that marginalizes and ignores her. It’s a period piece, with enough obvious dialogue, details, and cameos from well-known historical figures to let the audience know exactly when the story is taking place, with plenty of opportunities for the viewer to say, “My, how far we’ve come.” It has supporting characters facing challenges that mirror the protagonist’s, shining more light on the ways in which the order of the day affected those who were quietly fighting to maintain their place in it. And it has the standard untold story/historical injustice angle, intended to imbue the film with an extra bit of triumph and tragedy, all unleashed with a heavy dose of Hollywood mythmaking.
The difference, and the thing that distinguishes Hidden Figures from the likes of The Imitation Game, Dallas Buyers Club, and other recent Oscar nominees that play in the same space is that it uses the power of that formula in support of a woman of color. At a time when the world of film is still lingering in the shadow of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it’s encouraging that Taraji P. Henson is cast as the star of a movie that follows the Oscar-approved blueprint and succeeds at the box office and the awards table in the process. It’s just a shame that the film’s artistic merit can’t match its social merit.
Don’t get me wrong; Hidden Figures is a well-made film. It chugs along at a good clip — telling the story of one brilliant mathematician’s contributions to NASA at a time when someone of her race and gender had to work twice as hard to make it half as far in a tight, if predictable manner. It sprinkles in the subplots about her compatriots nicely, allowing them to work well as breaks from the main narrative while still feeding into it. The acting on display is good-to-solid all around. It’s impeccably shot, framed, and edited, with colors that leap off the screen and composition that emphasizes the loneliness, bustle, or intimacy of a given setting. And it can boast a jam-worthy soundtrack that fits the movie’s big moments, but which is still worth listening after you leave the theater.
But good lord is this movie full of every hoary trope from every awards season flick you’ve ever seen. It runs through a litany of standard, predictable beats, telegraphing each one along the way. The good guys overcome the heavily-underlined obstacles in their paths. They stand up to thinly-drawn, ineffectual antagonists. And they offer cutting, cheesy one-liners after finding their footing.
The film provides opportunities for Henson to give a Big Damn Speech, and for Kevin Costner to give a Big Damn Speech, and for Janelle Monáe to give a Big Damn Speech (which is, surprisingly, the best written and performed of the three). There is a one-dimensional love interest (Mahershala Ali, whose talents are squandered here) whose only true defining characteristic is that he likes the protagonist. And in the end, there are the expected measured but clear victories, culminating in a big historical event and a “where are they now” text-on-screen closing.
Even the canny little moments of repetition and subversion — the protagonist being handed a piece of chalk by her supervisor the same way she was as a child in the classroom to symbolize opportunity; or one of her white colleagues having to hustle across the NASA campus to find her rather than the other way around — feel like a page out of the usual awards-bait playbook.
The only times when the film transcends this sensibility are when it puts its three leads — Henson, Monáe, and Octavia Spencer (who manages to make a lot out of a little here) — together. It’s in these moments that Hidden Figures’s main characters seem like real human beings finding solace in one another and navigating a time and a place where the deck is stacked against them, rather than mascots for another rote bit of silver screen “triumph over adversity” heartstring-pulling.
Hidden Figures does the good work of telling the world about the trailblazing achievements of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, but it does a disservice to these women’s stories to reduce them to the usual prestige pablum, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s laudable that Hollywood is using its hagiographic abilities on people of color who deserve to be more widely known, but even the awards season fare of the recent past shows that filmmakers can do better. The superlative Selma looked like a bog-standard Great Man biopic at first blush and instead treated its historical giant of a central figure with a humanizing gaze that made Martin Luther King Jr., his movement, and his struggle feel more real than all the usual tinseltown gloss or lionizing tone could. The Best Picture-winning Twelve Years a Slave suffers from a small bit of the same white savior syndrome that afflicted the execrable The Help, but it was raw and uncompromising, putting the ugliness of the prejudices faced by its protagonist on display in a way that didn’t reduce them to hurdles our heroes would inevitably hop over. These vital stories can be told without sacrificing artistry or giving into the cliches of typical Oscar fare.
But maybe that’s the best thing to say about Hidden Figures. Every awards season is going to feature a certain quotient of this type of crowd-pleasing historical drama. Every year sees a new crop of competently-made, not particularly inspired movies that deal with Important Things, typically from The Long Long Ago. If this is inevitable, if the awards circuit is continually going to honor films that hit these same notes over and over again, then the least we can do is use this generic form in service of people whose stories deserve to be told, and who are all too often, as the movie’s title portends, left on the cutting room floor.