Review: Hidden Figures — An untold feel good, white guilt story at NASA

tariji p henson johnson hidden figures movie still

Hidden Figures (2016)

Movie review

Based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures is about three real African-American women who worked at NASA during the space race in the 1960s where the United States and Russia compete to be the first to send an astronaut into space. The three black ladies played a pivotal role in the period where racial segregation between white and the “coloured” still existed in America which they had to struggle through. The film, nominated for three Oscars, is directed and co-screenwritten by Theodore Melfi who only directed the 2014 comedy-drama St. Vincent before this.

The three protagonists are Katherine Goble Johnson — a mathematical genius — portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Burton, The Karate Kid remake), Dorothy Vaughan — the tough, protective big sister-like supervisor — portrayed by Octavia Spencer (Zootopia, Get On Up, Black or White), and Mary Jackson — who aspires to be the first black female NASA engineer — portrayed by Janelle Monáe (Moonlight, Rio 2). Although the timeline in the film may not be accurate with a fictional racist white characters (played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst), it is crafted well to link the important points of the three’s lives together into one movie.

It particularly focuses more on Johnson’s crucial involvement in calculating the flight trajectories for the space missions. Those who’re more familiar with complex maths might appreciate the situation more than I did. To be honest, I don’t even understand why almost all the white guys at NASA in the film are so incapable with their jobs.

hidden figures meme

It is not just a historical “black struggle” film but also black women empowerment. The fact that it’s based on true story and actual people makes it much more inspiring. Despite its themes and subject, the film is refreshingly far from the heavy, aching, drama tone that we are used in the genre. It has a more lighthearted approach compared to the likes of Selma (2014), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and The Help (2011) with more direct dialogues and some funny and crowd-pleasing moments — much like the sports drama Draft Day (2014) did, which also stars Kevin Costner (Black or White, Water World, JFK).

Here, Costner plays a fictional character named Al Harrison, somewhat a similar role as he did in Draft Day — a manager under fire to recruit the right people for his team to win in a “competition”. The character is also the cliched white hero in white guilt films — just so that the white Americans don’t feel too bad while watching the film perhaps. Anyway, good performances all around by the cast.

The film’s lighthearted direction sacrifices the level of emotional engagement that black history films usually instill. It’s a feel-good movie in overall that could get audiences pumping their fists in their hearts but they may not be fully attached to any of the characters or come any where close to weeping tears. Also, I don’t find myself surprised by the unfair treatment the black characters received as we have already seen much worse on big screen. However, again, Melfi does exactly what he set out to do with the film and that’s making it a very easily enjoyable, educational and inspiring true story-ish film.

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What I would’ve named the film: “Black People Had It Bad XV: NASA Space Projects”

Malaysian censorship: Nothing was noticeably cut at the local press screening and I don’t think anything needed to be censored either.

Verdict: Entertaining even for non-African-Americans and historically educational. Though I’d be very surprised if it won Best Picture at the Oscars.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

hidden figures movie poster malaysiaBased on: “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” novel by Margot Lee Shetterly

Genre: Biographical drama
Running Time: 126 minutes
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenwriter: Theodore Melfi, Allison Schroeder
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell

Malaysia Release Date: 23 March 2017
Rated: P13
Local Distributor: 20th Century Fox Malaysia
Production: Fox 2000 Pictures, Chernin Entertainment, Levantine Films, TSG Entertainment

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