Hidden Figures is just about not the worst name for this film. After all, it could have been called Black Women at NASA or Black Women Fight Prejudice at NASA. Part of me wishes it was called Space Race, given that it’s about the space race and also race. Another part of me hates the first part of me for suggesting this. Anyway, lest you thought this was a bog-standard biopic about the white men running 1960s NASA, then take note, for the focus instead is on the black women who are hidden figures behind the scenes. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, except the whole film has about as much subtlety as its title.
It’s entertaining and well-paced, sure, and in its best moments both rousing and moving. Its vivid colours and optimistic musical refrains are just what the doctor ordered if what you’re suffering from is a lack of heartening history about progress. The acting is solid across the board and it would be a miser indeed who left the cinema without an added spring in their step.
With all that in mind, this may be a churlish complaint, but it’s just a bit too upbeat. It wants to be a worthy drama, but the obstacles don’t quite seem tough enough, nor the struggle quite real. There’s never any doubt that our protagonists will triumph – indeed, they overcome most of their injustices within a few peppy montages. Sure, they get spurned and rained on, but we never feel the exhaustion or pain. Their family lives are perfect suburbia and they’re cheerful throughout. And while I’m not suggesting that every drama should be swamped with misery, there’s a distinct paucity of gravitas or even complexity.
Our protagonists have no flaws at all, while the NASA goons have zero personality, save for Kevin Costner, whose gruffness belies – would you believe it – a heart of gold. The rest of them just shuffle around racistly, waiting to be in a huff whenever the script demands it. Fortunately they’re all completely incompetent at their jobs (according to Costner’s character, there’s not a single person who can do analytic geometry in the whole of NASA), so it doesn’t take long for our plucky minority ladies to show their worth.
Hidden Figures follows Loving as a recent film addressing race relations in post-war America, yet the two could scarcely be more different. Loving went out of its way to avoid cliche and downplay its melodrama in favour of strong characterisation; Hidden Figures could not be more excited about its own significance. Where Loving was subtle and quiet, Hidden Figures has a zippy soundtrack and dialogue more on-the-nose than acne.
Its simplistic drama is obviously manufactured and occasionally groan-inducing, as when one of our leads successfully petitions a judge to reverse his opinion on segregation, approximately ten seconds after he’s lectured her on its importance. Or when our main character stoically rushes to the toilet in another building, even though it’s pouring with rain. In fact she repeatedly goes to the bathroom at critical moments, and may need to see a doctor about the condition of her bladder.
I wanted more NASA and less family life. More maths and more science. As it is, the little maths that makes it to screen is standard Hollywood fare to audiences: just a load of magic gibberish written in lines of chalk. Nevertheless, the film serves an important purpose: its core lessons on the damages we do to ourselves as a society through prejudice remain disturbingly relevant today. It’s a much needed call for us to better support minorities into higher education and women into science. And perhaps this is the virtue in the film’s approach: in simplifying its message, it can appeal to a wider, younger audience. It can inspire.