In general I’m a pretty open-minded filmgoer. I bristle when people ask me “what kind of movies do you watch” expecting me to name one genre or other when in fact I think any “kind” of movie can work well if done correctly. That having been said if there’s one kind of movie I have no use for it’s Hollywood movies whose only reason to exist is to be quote unquote “inspirational.” You know the movies I’m talking about: Rudy, October Sky, Remember the Titans, Patch Adams, Seabiscuit… basically any time a movie that says “based on the inspiring true story” on the poster you can count me out. To me these movies tend to be artistically bankrupt enterprises that actively avoid stylistic flourish, nuance, and challenging ideas in order to make themselves palatable as possible to the most basic of audiences, the kind of people who think going to Tony Robbins seminars is a good use of their time. What is unfortunate is that Hollywood has recently begun using the “inspirational true story” playbook when they try to tackle movies about the Civil Rights movement. I’m thinking in particular of movies like Red Tails, 42, and The Butler which tackle a very prickly subject in a very safe and neutered way, almost feeling like glorified children’s movies more than great cinema, and that’s very much the vibe I got out of the new film Hidden Figures which depicts the lives of African American women working at NASA during the 60s.
The film is set in 1961 and focuses on three women who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, which was an essential field center in NASA’s efforts to put a man in space. One of these women, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is functionally the supervisor of a department of African American women mathematicians who work there as computers (which in this context means “one who computes”) but has been refused the official designataion of supervisor by the uncaring bureaucracy at NASA. Another, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) wants to break out of being a computer and become an engineer but in many ways can’t because she’s being barred from taking required night school courses by the segregated school system. But the woman the film spends the most time looking at is Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) a particularly talented computer who is selected to work with the Space Task Group led by a guy named Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) which is in charge of highly complex mathematics which will be critical in launching John Glenn into space and bringing him back safely.
As you can probably guess from paragraph one, Hidden Figures was not a movie made for someone with my film tastes. In fact I avoided the movie for a while, but with all the Oscar nominations it’s received I came to the conclusion that I should probably give it a chance. I do think the movie has a pretty solid cast led by Taraji P. Henson, who started her career playing these young highly energetic roles and does a pretty good job transitioning into playing a character who’s a bit more “square” here. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are also good here and the assortment of white people they found to surround these white people also do a pretty good job of playing what you’d call “low key racism.” In general the movie does a pretty good job of keeping the focus on discrimination that’s a little more subtle and more applicable to the kind of issues people are still facing today. The exception to this is the film’s obsession with segregated bathrooms, which apparently isn’t exactly accurate to what these women even went through at the time and feels like the kind of “safely in the past” racism that movies like this often focus on.
The film was directed by a guy named Theodore Melfi, a white guy previously known for making a Bill Murray movie no one cared about called St. Vincent. The guy seems competent I guess, but he does very little to make the film really stand out. I guess he makes decent use of period music and should be given some credit for the performances, but this is cookie cutter Hollywood filmmaking to be sure. All in all this just seems like the same safe civil rights story we’ve seen so many times before. I suppose it deserves credit for coming up with a particular story of the civil rights movement but it treats the story with the same whiff of cliché that most of the other civil rights biopics of the Red Tails variety. That’s not a terrible thing exactly, I guess children need to learn about the civil rights movement somehow, but the fact that this thing has become a major box office hit and awards contender suggests to me that there are a lot of people settling for a rather remedial take on civil rights. There are better and deeper movies on the subject and grown-ups should be able buck up and see movies about race that are more challenging than this.