He SAID: Hidden Gem

Scott F. Evans

2017 (and late 2016) continues to deliver solid African-American cinema with this week’s release of Hidden Figures.  The film tells the story of the black women, classified as “computers” by NASA, whose invaluable input helped astronaut John Glenn orbit the planet.  It’s a remarkably inspirational story that’s been ignored by cinema and largely forgotten in history.  But this film, based loosely on the non-fiction book of the same name, seeks to remedy that.

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Hidden Figures is directed by Theodore Melfi with a script co-written with Allison Schroeder and adapted from  the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  And while the direction isn’t particularly special, the film still works surprisingly well.  Melfi’s direction is adequate, certainly a step above pedestrian, but it won’t garner any awards. He does elicit strong performances from his cast though.   He and Schroeder’s script give the actors plenty to work with.  The dialogue pops and breezes along with a slightly whimsical tone without trivializing the situation.  These brilliant women had to deal with an altogether different brand of racism; one that had no problem using their amazing talents, while refusing to acknowledge their efforts.  But the script doesn’t beat you up about it by focusing solely on the puzzling racism that still permeated a scientific organization like NASA.  It doesn’t run from or soft sell it, but it also doesn’t wallow in misery.  Instead it illustrates the value of higher education in a world that is rapidly progressing through technology.

But Hidden Figures is really elevated by its cast, with every player turning in a robust performance.  Taraji P. Henson leads the pack as mathematical genius Katherine Johnson.  While the film is something of an ensemble piece, Henson truly anchors it.  She plays Johnson with a easy, yet restrained touch, giving the role a light sense of humor even as she navigates the racial minefield of late 1960’s NASA.  Octavia Spencer gives another one of her typically solid performances as Dorothy Vaughn who manages the team of “computers”.  She plays Vaughn as strong, but not in that stiff manner we usually get in these types of roles.  Janelle Monae is new to acting, but she holds her own as the determined Mary Jackson. She plays her with a bit of sauce, but not enough to push Hidden Figures beyond its PG rating.  Kevin Costner is as stalwart as ever as Al Harrison.  He’s good in the role but as it’s almost tailor-made for him, it’s not a standout.

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If there’s one criticism I’d level at Hidden Figures is that music is weak.  It’s not bad, but the score by Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer all sound inauthentic, like modern music trying to sound period.  It’s too polished and synthetic sounding.  This film was made with the relatively low amount of 25 million (it doesn’t look it) so maybe securing era-specific music rights proved too rich for the budget.

So even though Hidden Figures plays almost like a big budget TV movie, it’s still worth a look in theaters.  This is truly an important story that should serve to inspire both young and old.

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