Here’s a movie that combines two of my favourite things: smart female characters and SPACE.
Hidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. When the movie begins, they’re all working in the “colored computers” section of NASA, where they actually do the math that electronic computers do for astronauts nowadays. But as the U.S. struggles to keep up with Russia in the space race, they each get assigned to different tasks, where their genius and vital contributions to the project eventually convince their superiors to…treat them like human beings. Once they help put John Glenn in orbit, they end up doing for the rights of female and minority scientists what he did for space exploration.
Overall, this is a pretty by-the-numbers “inspirational” movie–which, to be honest, is not my favourite kind of movie. It’s pretty predictable. It’s got inspiring speeches in all the usual places, it has the usual sexist/racist villains who get their usual comeuppance, and it has the usual tidied-up happy ending with the text appearing on-screen to tell us how our heroines’ lives turned out. I don’t know that much about the real-life events the story was based on, but I’d be willing to bet the heroines’ problems weren’t all completely solved within the time frame of this movie. And that’s the problem I have with most inspirational movies based on real life–real life is a lot more complicated than they make it seem, and simplifying it doesn’t make it more inspiring.
But this movie’s main purpose isn’t to be a surprising, suspenseful story with lots of twists. Its purpose is to bring to light some important women whose achievements never got the recognition they deserved. And it achieves that goal. I had never heard of any of these women before the movie came out, and it made me want to learn more about them. So in that sense, it does what it set out to do.
Considering the constraints of an “inspirational” movie based on historic events, it’s very well made, too. Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson, and Janelle Monae all turn in fantastic performances. Henson has the most to do, since her character gets the most developed story arc, and she makes Katherine’s intelligence and determination totally believable. But she’s very down-to-earth and sympathetic, too. Everybody gets a big speech about racism in this movie, because that’s just the kind of movie it is, but Katherine pulls off hers the best. I think it’s because, while some of the other speeches come more or less out of nowhere, hers comes after a good hour of built-up frustration and is about something we can all relate to–the need to use the bathroom. The irony of a top-level NASA scientist being able to calculate the trajectory of the first manned orbit, but not being allowed to use the same restroom as her peers, is not lost on either the character or the audience. And of course, the cinematography, the 60s-era costumes, the music, the shots of the rocket taking off spliced with the original news footage–it’s all very well done.
Also, I find it really hard not to love any movie that has to do with NASA’s first few missions. Just the idea that we sent people to space in a time when a basic computer filled half a room boggles my mind. It’s one of the very few things that can make me feel proud to be an American. And knowing that black women helped make that possible, even back when most colleges wouldn’t let them get degrees, just makes it all the more impressive.
So there’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se, and it probably deserves its Best Picture nomination as much as any other movie on the list. But I wish that, just once, we could have a movie about historical figures overcoming racism and injustice that didn’t beat us over the head with speeches all the time, didn’t wrap up everything so tidily at the end, and wasn’t so darn predictable.
But I highly recommend going to see this movie–in the theatre if you can. Not just because it’s a decent film in its own right that will get you thinking about an oft-ignored bit of history–but also because the more successful movies we get with black female leads, the closer we come to getting a movie about my favourite real-life black woman: Harriet Tubman. If done right, her movie wouldn’t just be inspirational and uplifting–it’d be cool. Harriet Tubman was a spy! She rescued hundreds of slaves! She led troops against the Confederates! She was like Indiana Jones and Batman in the body of a five-foot woman! Why haven’t we made a movie about her yet???
Hidden Figures is a good movie with a good message. But it’s a little too safe. It follows the “inspirational movie formula” a little too closely for me. I wanted a little more complexity and a couple fewer speeches.
Oh, well. At least now I have three more awesome scientists to read about. Any day I find out about brilliant women making a difference in space technology is a good day.
Seriously, though, Hollywood: make that Harriet Tubman movie. We’ve waited long enough.