Aida Vucic | 19/02/2017
A remarkable true story made toothless in this listless re-telling of African-American women’s contribution to the space race.
Adapted from Margot Lee Shirley’s book ‘Hidden Figures’ is the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three brilliant African-American women working at NASA. These three women would ultimately play an integral role in the space race, seeing John Glen successfully orbit around Earth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film, which failed to deliver even with its poignant tale and strong cast.
It’s the 1960’s and man’s desire to explore the unknown, Space, is at its peak. With the Soviet Union having already sent a monkey into space, the United States is eager to ensure they are not outdone. Unlikely; with the bright minds employed by NASA, the US is sure to win the race. But unbeknownst to the larger populace, NASA employed women ‘calculators’. For our three heroines, being African-American and female in their position is, at least to the wider male populace of the time, unbelievable.
Our three heroines’ seem only to be propelled by their adversaries, as Katherine secures herself a position within the Space team, while Dorothy establishes herself as an irreplaceable expertise in programming and Mary fights to become the first female African American engineer.
Although the title would suggest this story follows the journey of all three women, this is not the case. Instead, Katherine’s clearly the protagonist and the movie jumps between the other two women. This is a disservice to the film as it fails to develop any of the characters, instead overexerting itself by shoehorning in two other backstories.
For a film dealing with such contentious topics, Hidden Figures plays it safe. Mefi doesn’t stray far from the conventional Hollywood feature formula; true story, in-demand cast and slick imagery. Mefi is fine as a point and shoot director, but this story could have benefitted from the hand of an auteur.
Unfortunately, the film would have been served well had it been more emotionally driven, or even presented in a somber tone. Instead there was a romantic sub-plot, which was underdeveloped and felt contrived, more an opportunity to throw a ‘big name’ Mahershala Ali into the movie, to squeeze those extra ticket sales.
Some of the acting is also conspicuous. Taraji P. Henson in particular gives her character tics and flaws that are obvious acting contrivances. Her habit of pushing up her glasses is underdeveloped, and feels conscious every time we see it. Such performance features would have benefitted from more focus on a singular character.
Yet not all is lost. There are moments of pure joy as we find ourselves reeling at the successes of these women and egging them on. Nominated for an Oscar, but given its competition its safe to say Hidden Figures is unlikely to take the prize.
Underwhelming, but propelled by it’s remarkable story and Hollywood sheen, Hidden Figures is solid popcorn fare but is unlikely to take home any big awards come February 26.