From the Archives: Hidden Figures review

From the Archives: Hidden Figures review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

Given the necessity of we Americans to reconsider our history to make it more accurate and inclusive, it’s not my intention to come down hard on Hidden Figures, a shiny tale of segregation during the space race, but as much as I want to get behind the message, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten to put it in a proper vessel. Hidden Figuresis almost all preaching with very little movie to speak of, and what movie is there is so broad that much of the message falls flat. I like my movies infused with a message, and not the other way around. I think the vast majority of folks who find themselves in the audience for Hidden Figures can agree that racism and sexism are bad — relics of a more barbaric time in history — and would also be in agreement that the fight for equality is far from over . . . and Hidden Figures spends most of its runtime hammering this point home, ignorant to the fact that a less didactic approach would be an easier pill to swallow for those of us, myself included, who can benefit from this sort of thing. What I’m saying is: when my teachers made me read Lord of the Flies, I didn’t. When I read it on my own time, I realized the teachers were right.


Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women, all of whom do heavy mental lifting for NASA in an effort to put John Glenn into space and bring him home in one piece. With the first electronic computer still being assembled, the “computers” were all flesh and blood and pencils and paper, and with brilliance being a hot commodity, NASA could not afford to shut out any minds that could help us beat Russia to the stars, regardless of color or gender. Unfortunately for our heroines, this does not mean equality. Segregation is still alive and well within the ranks of NASA. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) needs college courses to advance in the engineering sector, but is not permitted to attend a segregated school. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is by and far the most qualified candidate for management, but is brushed aside by her superiors in account of her race. Katherine Johnson, easily the most brilliant mind in the computer bank has to leave the premises for hours at a time just to find a colored bathroom.

The three leads carry the film with grace and style, evoking tears, anger, and laughter as needed, elevating the script into something that resembles a movie. But it’s moments like the one where the boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) smashes the “colored bathroom” sign that threaten the reality of the film. You see, he did so to promote both inclusivity and efficiency in the work place . . .  by taking his entire workforce on a 45 minute field trip to desegregate the wrong bathroom. I get it, the visual of a crowbar smashing a “coloreds only” sign is a beautiful thing, but is it really worth fabricating an image when the truth of the movie is already worth rallying behind?


The dialogue suffers too. Mostly because the characters speak about the in-movie present day as if they are time travelers from here in 2016. “Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in 1961?” says Mary Jackson, as she follows a police escort to her workplace. “That is a God-ordained miracle!” She’s speaks incredulously, saying out loud what our 2016 brains would have thought if given the chance.

Still, its heart is in the right place, even though we emerge with no better understanding of precisely what it is that our heroes did, short of scrawl indecipherable figures on a chalkboard while colleagues look on, screaming “oh my god, she’s DOING it!” As such, I don’t feel like I’ve emerged with a better understanding of the history, nor of the women at the center of this story. I only know that in retelling our country’s most important tales, it would be wrong to restrict it to a single lens. This is good, but I, personally, require more if you need me to engage for over two hours.

But many don’t, and those folks are going to have a grand time with Hidden Figures, a well-meaning, if toothless historical drama that is head and shoulders above most movies that high schoolers will be forced to watch during their teacher’s hangover. And honestly, even if the movie was a failure in my eyes, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

My biggest takeaway? Janelle Monae is going to be HUGE.

Hidden Figures opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site.

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