Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hidden Figures

*** out of ****

Hidden Figures examines unsung heroes during the early years of the space race by focusing on black women who worked in the computation department of NASA solving advanced mathematical equations that enabled the successful launches and returns of astronauts like John Glenn.

Taking plenty of dramatic license, the film tells us the true accomplishments of three women: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

Vaughan powers her way through the obstacles of her spiteful white superior (Kirsten Dunst) to have a hand in the giant IBM being installed in a room that may take the place of her job. Jackson struggles to become an engineer -which requires the completion of education courses not offered to blacks - or women - in the state. It is Johnson’s story that gets the most emphasis as the she is promoted to work with the Space Task Group on the Friendship 7 mission where she deals with daily adversity that slowly dissipates when the head of the division (Kevin Costner) realizes she is a unique genius capable of solving their most difficult problems.

I struggle with movies like Hidden Figures because they dare me to judge based on content more than form. This movie is the kind of cinematic fluff that deserves a pass because it is important enough to be worthy of school field trips to the theater until it charms families at home with its unchallenging –but relevant history lesson when it plays on cable TV.

This is the kind of glossy period film that gets romantically nostalgic by relishing in vintage Americana through colorful costume and set design – while simultaneously showing contemptuous regret for the time by rubbing in reminders of Jim Crowe era racism and the general sexism of the time. I’m rather sure that no one in this film is seen smoking, so I guess Virginia had some level of sophistication back then –or maybe the movie was trying to keep its PG-rating.

It is one of many historical films that is friendly to the senses, but has me wishing for a fact-driven documentary instead. However, lots of people –especially young people are likely to respond to its lesson in a positive way. 

The struggles and triumphs of these women in their personal and professional lives are demonstrated with an accessible cinematic fashion. Henson and Spencer expectedly bring a lot of wit and emotion to their roles as seasoned pros while Monáe brings a magnetic screen presence in her second film. This is a formulaic-but-fun movie.

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