Black cinema, Black film, Black History, Black History Month, Dorothy Vaughn, erasure, Hidden Figures, Janelle Monáe, Katherine Goble Johnson, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali, Mary Jackson, NASA National Aeronautic Space Administration, Octavia Spencer, racism, Representation Matters, Space Race, Taraji P. Henson, Thomas Edison, White privilege, White Supremacy
“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”
– Junot Diaz, speaking to students at Rutgers University, 2007
*I saw Hidden Figures on Saturday – 14 January 2017.
As I was growing up, Black History Month held no shortage of surprises for me. The older I got, the more I saw that many of the innovations we take for granted these days owe much of their existence to people who look like me. As I grew more militant in my teens, my joy in discovering these Black historical figures grew to anger that they’d literally been “whited-out” of the popular consciousness, if not historical record. (You can probably think of 100 times you’ve seen actors plays Thomas Edison, but when’s the last time you saw one play George Washington Carver?)
That’s why when you see hashtags saying #RepresentationMatters, it’s not simply “a buncha’ whiny minorities who can’t see we’re doin’ ‘em a favor”. It’s certainly an attempt to erase the White/cis/hetero/Christian/male stories that are – and always have been – told ad nauseum. No, it’s an attempt to get proper recognition for taking part in the most important stories in human history. That isn’t greed, that’s wanting what’s right.
Hidden Figures is a film meant to pay tribute to some of the unsung heroes behold NASA’s Apollo Space Program. It doesn’t entirely succeed, but it makes an incredibly noble effort.
It’s 1961 and “The Space Race” is truly beginning to heat up. As the United States brings together its greatest minds to beat the Soviet Union, the US is still struggling with institutional racism and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. In the midst of these events we find Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan – three Black American women who work for NASA. As they fight every day to break through the glass ceiling the prevents them from advancing, their talents may be the very thing the US needs.
There’s a type of biopic that’s commonly thought of as “Disney Channel-style”: safe; lacking in controversy; and often over-simplifying historical events in an attempt not to offend, well, anyone. It’s a bit funny to think The Disney Channel has this distinction if you can remember back to the biopics they aired in the late-‘80s/early-‘90s (the ones about racism frequently featured death and the word “nigger”), but the distinction is apt in regards to both the contemporary Disney Channel and the modern biopic.
Hidden Figures falls somewhere in-between: it’s conscious enough of the time period to remember that racism was a daily part of life in the ‘60s, but avoids going into detail (neither death nor the word “nigger” are to be found), seemingly in an attempt to keep White audiences comfortable. It’s an approach that’s less “loud and proud” and more “Meet me halfway on this”. Given that the film is written, produced, and directed entirely by Whites, that isn’t surprising.
Mind you, that isn’t to say the film is bad, just that it treats its subject with kid gloves. It’s clichéd and predictable due to the conventions of mainstream biopics, but not bad. It would have been better to have a film where the characters didn’t all speak in both exposition and a self-awareness that could only come with contemporary hindsight, but make no mistake that the best efforts are made by all involved.
The cast are mostly great in their roles. Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer tend to be typecast as the “ghetto baby-mama” and “sassy Black woman” (respectively), but they have a much wider range than those roles suggest. Here they wear the roles of a mathematical geniuses like comfortable coats. Janelle Monáe is adequate as the third part of their trio. Between this and Moonlight, it’s clear she means to take a serious stab at acting. She’s decent, but she hasn’t completely gotten out of the “I. Am. Reading. Lines.”-style of delivery. Hopefully this will improve with further roles. (Hell, she’s already better than the lifeless block of wood that is Michael Colter.)
Their co-stars far well also. Mahershala Ali – with whom Monáe also co-starred in Moonlight – makes the most of what is ultimately a thankless role, namely the standard love interest. Kevin Costner is… Kevin Costner. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly condescending as our heroes’ supervisor whose White privilege blinds her to her own racism. I’ve never seen The Big Bang Theory other than promos – promos which guarantee that I’ll never watch the show proper – but Jim Parsons appears to be a capable actor when he isn’t acting out nerd stereotypes thought up by the rich jocks who beat up the nerds.
Nominations notwithstanding, I’ll actually be surprised if Hidden Figures has any lasting impact. True, it tells a story of women often left out of the history books, but it does so in a way that’s almost laughable in how it doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a film about racism – people were offended when it happened and people will be offended telling about it. I say again that the film isn’t bad by any means, just not fully respectful of the audience’s intelligence. And given that the subjects are defined by both their race and their intellect, that’s a missed opportunity on the part of the (all-White) film-makers.