Review: Hidden Figures

I have been so slack with seeing movies this summer. So many things that I wanted to see were gone from the cinema before I got a chance to see them, though I wanted to see Jackie and it didn’t even play near me. But last night I got to see Hidden Figures. I went with Jennifer and Mum, to watch a film about women for International Women’s Day. 🙂

Basically, the film is based (extremely loosely) on a true story and details three genius women working at NASA in the early days, with the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Russian space race paranoia as a backdrop. They come up against endless barriers and obstacles because of their sex and colour, but all three prevailed and went on to become celebrated pioneers and heroes in their field. They are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson).

The script was not great. The dialogue was often clichéd, or just failed to hit the right notes at what could have been really meaningful moments. There was one moment early in the film where they give a visualization of Katherine’s mathematical prowess, as she sees the geometric tiles from a mosaic rise off the surface. But after that, apart from a lot of impressive chalkboard equations, it didn’t really touch again in any creative way on how uniquely gifted her mind was. Some of the music was great – I loved the era-appropriate songs and the gospel-tinged score, but I felt like the modern music that was inserted here and there was a bit jarring and took away from the period setting – whenever it happened, suddenly it felt a lot more like modern day actresses playing with costumes rather than a true account of a time and place.

Now, the performances. Let me start with the positives! Octavia Spencer was amazing, as she always is. There is a scene where she personally delivers her work to Kirsten Dunst’s character’s office, only to be stared at with disdain by all the white female staff and treated like a delivery girl. With just her amazingly expressive face, she conveyed so much about the frustration, disappointment, indignity and injustice of the situation, while maintaining a professional facade. It was an amazing moment later in the film when those same women who looked down on her are shepherded into the new computer department that she manages, to be taught by her – I was just about bursting with pride and happiness for her at this part.

In the opening scene, I got bad vibes from Janelle Monáe. I only know her as a musician, so I wasn’t expecting much, and honestly just expected her to be playing herself. But she got better and better as the movie went on. She was playful and feisty, and aside from her performance, she rocked all the vintage styled clothes. I loved how spirited she was and how she wouldn’t take no for an answer – gumption is the word I’m looking for. I’d love to see her in more movies in the future.

Now the bad part. I could not warm to Taraji P. Henson, at all. The biggest reason sounds ridiculous, but it’s totally legitimate – her eyebrows did not move, not even once. They are utterly frozen, inches above her eyes, in this weirdly angular Joan Crawford approximation. It was so distracting, but apart from that, it took so much emotion away from her face during what should have been crucial moments. Actresses of the world – please do not get Botox. Your face is your craft – please show us how angry or sad or calm or happy you are, don’t just tell us with a frozen face. The other part that got on my nerves about her performance was how she changed her voice and her whole demeanour whenever her boyfriend-then-husband was around. It was literally this sugary, simpering, dumb, baby porno voice. It just didn’t gel at all with the fact that she was meant to be such a genius as well as an incredibly strong woman.

She kind of wrecked the movie for me. I could intellectually relate to the horrible discrimination that she faced and feel bad about it, but I couldn’t empathize with her as much as the other two characters because she just didn’t seem to inhabit her character and feel their emotions like Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe did. There have been studies that show that Botox reduces the ability of users to empathize with others, and maybe an additional part of that is that people are less likely to empathize with them.

The movie was pretty standard in being a feel-good, inspirational type story, even if it’s claim to be ‘a true story’ was tenuous at best… which is sad, because the real life stories of these three women are insanely interesting, but they just don’t come together as such a conveniently neat narrative as this film required. A lot of the racial and gender issues that the characters faced could have been ripped from today’s headlines in America, which was a powerful comment on how there has been progress, but there is still a hell of a fight ahead for everybody. Parts of the movie were great, but other parts of it were just a bit ham-fisted and under developed. Octavia Spencer deserved every bit of her Oscar nomination, but I am puzzled about why this was up for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay – it was good but not great, and certainly not amazing.

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