First, let me just say one thing: Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is an unchallenging film. It’s an unchallenging film about race. It’s an unchallenging film about race in 2016. But whatever, right? The film comes during the most racially charged climate of my lifetime and while a slew of cerebral and emotionally complex films have broached the subject of disenfranchisement and race relations (from Ava DuVernay’s 13th to Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America), none possess the sort of Hollywood-gloss and superficiality of Everything Being Just Fine as Hidden Figures. It is simply more pleasant to be happy than it is to be pissed off, as Hidden Figures considers the painful without the pain, aims for sincerity despite a motive, and engages without demanding.
Melfi’s film details the lives of three African-American women employed during NASA’s space program of the late 50s and 60s. The first scene involving these three women – Katherine Coleman (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – sees them at the side of the road, their clunker of a car once again failing them. It’s here where Melfi distinguishes his characters not through any measure of humanity but instead reduces them to biopic cliché and archetypes: Coleman’s the timid dreamer, Vaughn as the grounded moralist, and Jackson as the assertive firecracker. And it’s during this initial setup that Melfi identifies the period’s racial anxieties as being ancillary to a broader global one, whereby the fear of communism effectively disarms a hostile cop who accosts the women. I can offer any number of snide remarks to such a moment, but there’s a problem here when an interaction between three black women and a confrontational (Jim Crow-era) cop is reduced to a one-liner.
Among the three, Henson’s Katherine Coleman dictates much of the narrative, as she functions as a proofing “computer” for NASA’s logistical department. She’s confronted with the obstacles of the era, from separate colored bathrooms a mile away from her workspace to the ghastly stares of white colleagues. Outlining the supporting cast is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, an engineer who greets Coleman’s intrusion with disdain, appalled at the notion of a black woman proofing his work. There’s also the division’s manager, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who is more or less ambivalent to her presence, mostly concerned with her work rate than the complexion of her skin. He’s proffered one of the film’s numerous moments of crowd-pleasing jubilation, where he proceeds to break down the barriers of racial oppression with a sledgehammer (literally). Hey, white people aren’t all bad.
But did Hidden Figures really need to tell us that? This is a film that’s supposed to be about pioneers in their field but none of them register as breathing human beings. It’s not to fault the performers, most particularly Monáe, who gives the saccharine material its only palpable sense of confrontation and anger. But the whole effort comes across as so painfully reductive, where every effort on behalf of its characters is reduced to a mawkish display of hagiography, failing to confront the real and genuine hardships of its era. It’s irresponsible, really, where nearly every display of hardship is designed to be insistently uplifting, in what tangibly feels like a product for consumer satisfaction.
There’s nothing innovative or useful to think about after Hidden Figures’ runtime is over, except for how it trivializes, well, everything. There’s a moment in particular, where Henson’s Coleman offers her findings before a group of white government officials, all men. They stare, blank-faced, as the gears of her intellect are on full display. It gestates for a moment before the punch line lands. It’s designed as a moment of uplift, of good humor, yet dictated from an entirely white, male perspective. And it belittles that intellect, treating her feats of intelligence as a lark. But whatever, right? We rarely want our films to confront us with any real grief or exploratory concerns; give us escapism. This’ll do it for ya.