Oscar Review: Hidden Figures

Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.

Today’s review is the true story of the African-American women who changed NASA, Hidden Figures.


Directed by Theodore Melfi

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Plot: The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program. (via IMDB)

As a film, Hidden Figures is a tricky one to review.  It’s a little known story that very much deserves to be told and the world of cinema is that much better for its existence. And yet it’s only as a piece of filmmaking, it’s just alright. A complicated reaction, I realize so let me try to unwrap it.

This is story concerns three female African American employees of NASA who not only were trailblazers in their field but genuinely helped launch the U.S space program. It’s a story I have never heard before and it is truly fascinating. These women faced so many obstacles and roadblocks but ultimately gained recognition simply based on being the best at what they can do. After the results of last Falls presidential election, I couldn’t help but think what a devastating blow that must have been for the millions of young girls who thought they would see the first female president. This movie could not have been timed more perfectly in that respect. Aside from the inspiring messages on gender and race this movie delivers, its success is also good news for the movie industry. This is the highest grossing movie among this year’s Best Picture nominees, putting one more nail in the coffin of the outdated notion that only white males can lead successful films.

So how then can a movie whose existence I praise so highly be still considered a mediocre film? Well, it’s simply that beyond the good points I mentioned above, the film doesn’t offer too much. Yes, it’s a wonderful true story, but I didn’t get any more from the film than I would have gotten from reading about the subject. It’s an extremely straight-forward telling of the story, with no surprises at all. You can guess each story beat pretty accurately from the first 15 minutes. This nothing offensive or bad in the story, it simple happens and then the movie is over. Again, if this is the best way people for people to hear about the story of these women, then I’m glad we have this movie, but I can’t give it credit for simply being about an important subject. I also wish the movie spent a little more time helping us to understand how brilliant these women actually were. We get scene after scene of these women wowing their colleagues with their intellect, but the film hardly approaches the notion of explaining the work they do. Granted, extremely advanced mathematics isn’t the most cinematic thing, but I think of how Moneyball fascinated me with a subject I had no interest in and I wish this movie made some similar  efforts.

I found the film’s depiction of racism to be interesting. It’s the kind of racism we don’t usually see in films. These women are continuously and categorically discriminated against be their white colleagues, who insist they aren’t part of the problem. It’s the sort of causal prejudice that still very much exists today. I also was taken by the “small” pains segregation caused to African Americans. Having to run from one building to another each day just to find a “Colored” bathroom, not being able to check out the book you need  because its not in your section of the library- small things we take for granted now that these women dealt with while helping shape the future. And yet, the still makes a massive misstep with an astonishingly stupid scene in which Kevin Costner’s suddenly becomes aware of racism. Hard to comprehend that one.

Again, there’s nothing about the movie that has me shaking my head at it. It’s well-acted by the whole cast, with Janelle Monáe (also great in (Moonlight) being the stand-out. The directing is competent, if a bit bland. Pharrell’s song is just kind of thrown in there, not being all that memorable. I really don’t want to diminish any of its success but there are far more deserving films that could have taken its spot on the Best Picture nominee list. In the end, it’s a wonderful story inside of a cookie cutter film.




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