NOW PLAY AT THE ART THEATER: Hidden Figures
By Greggory Moore
Feb. 13, 2017
Even if you don’t know the real-life story of three particular Black women’s contributions to early 1960s NASA, less than five minutes into Hidden Figures you know exactly where we’re going. Hell, you know it from the commercials. That’s because director Theodore Melfi and company have cut the cloth of their Oscar-nominated, based-on-a-true-story story straight from a standard feel-good template. It doesn’t allow for a stylistic stammer of reality or characters drawn in any but the broadest strokes, and the good guys/gals manage to make all the right moves every moment of their meaningful lives.
But for some filmgoers, it’s all part of the magic of movies.
We open on childhood math prodigy Katherine (played as an adult by Taraji P. Henson). We know she’s a math prodigy because we’re in the midst of a montage of adults discussing what a whiz she is, cut with a scene of our little hero (wearing cute nerdy glasses, I think because smart people wear glasses) at a big blackboard dashing off calculations while the teacher and classmates look on in awe. Next she’s an adult (same kind of glasses, so we know she’s still smart) at the side of the road, Mary (Janelle Monáe) enjoying a cigarette while Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) tries to fix the car. A White cop pulls up just to hassle them, it seems, but when he learns that they work for NASA (the glasses never lie!), his patriotism burns away his prejudice (Americans gotta stick together to take on those Russkies and their damn Sputnik) enough to give them a police escort (the car magically works now, although Dorothy didn’t touch it while they were talking). “Three Negro women chasing a White police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia in 1961,” Mary hoots as they haul ass. “Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”
Hidden Figures is 127 minutes of scenes just like that, happy music (Ray Charles, Pharrell) letting you know when something good has happened, sad strings when the going gets tough. Most of the White people can’t open their mouths without being insensitive or latently racist (although a few get requisite hero moments. John Glenn, for example, is a goddamn prince), while every one of our protagonists’ pronouncements drips with personality, wisdom, bravery, sugar, spice, and everything nice.
Thing is, sometimes—particularly in retrospect—real life can seem a little clichéd. There was an audible groan from the audience when Katherine, newly-assigned as the first Black woman (the first person of color and the first woman) goes to fetch herself a cup of coffee and finds that her co-workers have set up a little “COLORED” coffee pot next to the communal dispenser. It’s almost more ludicrous than disgusting because it’s so passé, so silly. But regardless of whether that specific incident is factual, silly, disgusting clichés like that were real and big as life back then. Similarly, heroism was rampant in the Black community during the struggle for civil rights. And yes, there were some White people in white hats (e.g., John Glenn really was a helluva guy).
Screenwriters Melfi and Allison Schroeder telegraph every plot development and rely heavily on the frisson we feel from knowing that 55 years later our country, although far from free of racism, is no longer quite like that, even in one nation under Trump. “You can be an astronaut if you want to, Mommy,” says the youngest of Katherine’s three perfect little angels. This kind of thing doesn’t do much to generate emotion; it’s more along the lines of putting up little signs that say, Emotion goes here. Significance is here. You can barely see the world for all its obvious signs of manufacture.
For all that, there’s nothing incompetent here. This is today’s Hollywood style, the kind of aesthetic universe where rockets always roar in the airlessness of space, where you color by number and always stay within the sharply drawn lines. They do make ’em like they used to, with a bit more technical skill. With this kind of artisanship, even a terrible script can be palatable so long as the audience doesn’t give it much thought.
Hidden Figures probably isn’t a terrible script (although if you don’t roll your eyes a few times, you’re not listening), and it does have one saving grace: Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s story really has been, if not hidden, invisible to most of us. God knows I didn’t hear this in school or in any of the space-related TV I’ve seen (and I watch PBS, bub) in the quarter-century since then. I’m not sure a just-the-facts approach makes for an especially riveting film (neither were the filmmakers, so they inserted not one but two ticking-clock scenarios to spice up the climax), but it’s a great story nonetheless, and I’m glad to have learned something about it. (It seems the general consensus is that of course the film takes liberties, but truth hasn’t been totally lost in the shuffle.)
In the world of fact-based fictions, Hidden Figures is a lot more Apollo 13 than significant works of art The King’s Speech or Foxcatcher, and not just because of the blast-offs. If you’re going to the cine in search of simple and predictable feel-goodness, like a trip to the fridge for comfort food, you’re likely to come away full, because Hidden Figures is certainly full of it. I’m not sure they should give Oscars—or even Oscar nominations—for this sort of thing (if it beats out La La Land for a single statuette, we’ll know dem Russkies done done it again), but this is a solid example of populist filmmaking for a good cause.
Hidden Figures is scheduled to run through Thursday, February 16. The Art Theatre Long Beach is located at 2025 E. 4th St., Long Beach 90814. Phone: 562.438.5435.