An ordinary film about the extraordinary
Coming two years after the overly sentimental St.Vincent, Theodore Melfi returns to the directors chair for Hidden Figures. The inspiring true story of how three African-American women fought against gender and race discrimination to assist in arguably the greatest human accomplishment of the time, launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit. An event which turned the tide of the space race and united America in it’s desire to reach the moon.
The three women depicted in Hidden Figures begin as ‘computers’, someone who performs long and often tedious mathematical calculations prior to the invention of electronic computers. They all aspire for greater things but due to the societal hurdle of skin colour find great difficulty in getting acknowledged, let alone respected. Katherine Johnson’s talent (Taraji Henson) has incredible mathematic ability, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has natural leadership skills and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is a fantastic engineer. All three actresses are commanding in their roles, which isn’t entirely positive as the weaker performances are more noticeable with the weakest of all being Jim Parsons’ portrayal of head engineer Paul Stafford. A character whose only purpose in the film is to reinforce the fact that people of colour face discrimination. Melfi must have doubted the audience’s ability to denounce racism on its first appearance so decided to make Stafford repeatedly, and to no additional story benefit, belittle Katherine.
Parsons’ character is not the only story element that if removed would have made the film less forgettable. Another example of this is the needless romantic subplot involving Katherine and Army Officer Jim Johnson. Romance for the sake of romance is usually for one of two reasons, either the scriptwriters needed an extra 15 minutes runtime and got lazy, or the film needed to be more accessible for the general public (to bring in those box office returns). Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) who plays Johnson is a great actor and it is a shame that his talent is wasted in this role.
Whilst there were many scenes showing discrimination against the women of the West Computing wing, and people of colour as a whole, one particular example was overplayed. After Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group, a collection of the greatest scientific and engineering minds in America, she is constantly on the receiving end of racial prejudice. This occurs to such an extent that they are made to seem villainous to fit with the generic Hollywood narrative: character faces adversity, almost succumbs as a result but is eventually victorious. There is nothing new or original here. Just another underwhelming “based on a true story” film that seems to hit the cinema screens every few weeks.
In years to come it will be the films that took risks that will be remembered and sadly Hidden Figures took none. The outcome is an ordinary film about the extraordinary. One that uses the leads to push an agenda rather than treat them like the pioneers they were. Yet another addition to the pile of potential classics.