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Review: Hidden Figures

credit Civoket Cilite
Civoket Cilite

The Hidden Figures trailer had me at hello. The golden, formidable trifecta of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe set expectations sky-high to a fast-paced, unapologetic of a teaser trailer promising a fiercely unfettered script. Frustratingly however, the film never quite reaches lift off. Still featuring fantastic production value and gorgeous costuming, Hidden Figures is still very enjoyable and a worthy watch, but slipshod direction from Theordore Melfi and a forced fit of producer Pharrell Williams’ perky soundtrack keep this Oscar Nominee earthbound.

With an opening which makes Roald Dahl’s Matilda look like a slovenly class slacker, a canny young maths whizz Katherine Johnson (Lidya Jewett) wows scholarship funders with numerical gymnastics, chalking equation after equation onto a blackboard before financers eager to kickstart her future. Jumping from prodigy to NASA brainbox, the flashforward presents a grown up Johnson running late and broken down on the roadside with friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a supervisor of a team of “computers” (her team of black women who crunch numbers in a time pre-machinery)  in everything but the actual title or pay, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), striving to become an engineer.

Hidden Figures is a welcome springboard for these remarkable stories, and the film’s major triumph is how it presents the relentless strain of the fight to be “first”.

The scientific contributions of women have famously gone long unacknowledged, uncredited and even purposefully redacted. While white women’s legacies have resurfaced in the past decade, such as now household names like Rosalind Franklin, the stories of the women of this story have remained brushed under the rug. Hidden Figures is a welcome springboard for these remarkable stories, and the film’s major triumph is how it presents the relentless strain of the fight to be “first”. Choosing the path less travelled by doesn’t quite have the same thrill for these women as it does for Robert Frost, and both Monáe and Spencer shine at conveying the exasperation of constantly breaking unprecedented ground with limited support.

Henson is the film’s show-stealer however, and finest when she is fine-tuned into meaningful, low-key moments, epitomised by her first meeting with lead engineer in which she smiles at the punchline of a joke which sails past her other colleagues. Malfi’s direction however demands an over-acting which often strips past her subtleties. Henson seems like a fish out of water struggling to slot into pantomimed slapstick scenes drawn out by long stretches of the bouncy Pharrell hit “Runnin’”, and direction tends to push its own kitschy agenda rather than feeding from the raw talents of the cast. Jamwadded monologues sometimes lay on the emotion too thick, and miss all but a nomination banner, slow zoom and courteous applause to round off. Putdowns ring very Hollywood and sound far less snappy out of bitesize form, wedged awkwardly into conversations which don’t need them (“Yes, they let women do some things at NASA Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses”), and this subbed in snark always seems to flinch a little bit before actually getting real or hitting home. The leader of the Space Task Group (Al Harrison) in particular seems to draw away the spotlight from the films’ women, and macho act of knocking down a sign segregating bathrooms is eye-roll inducing at best, and plain demeaning at worst. This is particular a shame when other men in the film manage to support the main characters without stealing the limelight, such as the Jewish émigré who supports Jackson’s fight for certification to become the first black female engineer at NASA.

Hidden Figures orbits brilliance, but never quite sticks the landing. Malfi continually opts for the easy, which results in a spoonfeedable story muted and sugarcoated down by a director who is not sure his audience can take it and won’t take risks to see if they will. Still, Hidden Figures is another small step for films against #OscarsSoWhite, but there have been bigger and better giant leaps this awards season.

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