There are some films that I always find difficult to review.
These are films where the subject matter has are particularly deep emotional resonance for some audiences. Films about the Holocaust fall into this category.
As a critic, you always feel that any criticism of the film somehow lessens the importance of the events that the film portrays. I also find, that in the case of films about the Holocaust, my emotional response completely overwhelms any critical faculties that I might have.
I have a similar, but not quite so strong, reaction when I see films like Hidden Figures. I still get very angry at the injustice of segregation in the US.
Hidden Figures draws together a number of strands of American history: Martin Luther King’s struggle against segregation, the US space race against the Russians, the fight against educational segregation in the South, the emancipation of women (particularly black women).
Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson crossed all gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and firmly cemented them into U.S. history as true American heroes.
They were employed in the American program at NASA when it was rare for women among black women to be employed alongside men in jobs requiring high levels of technical skill. This did not mean that they do not encounter prejudice. They did.
Supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) is a first rate bitch.
In the film, she is a casual and unthinking racist. But she is a stereotype and she typifies the problems with this film.
It is full of stereotypes.
And there is another problem.
She didn’t really exist. That isn’t to say there weren’t a lot of characters like her.
Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group is the crusty old grandfather figure, full of home spun wisdom.
He is a composite character. He didn’t really exist either. He’s made up to fit the history.
Glen Powell as John Glenn, astronaut is, well, John Glenn, National Hero. We know he did exist.
Other than that, all the white folk are pretty much unlikable. And none more so than Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, head engineer in STG
Paul Stafford didn’t exist either.
The heroines of the film are three sassy, quick-witted, intelligent, resilient and totally likeable young women.
And they are making good progress in a white man’s world.
And they get all the good lines.
In the film (but not in real life), Mary Jackson has to get a court order to be allowed to attend engineering classes. When she arrives at class which is full of white males, she looks around and says, in reference to the segregated bus system in the south, “I suppose I can sit anywhere, I don’t see a coloured section.” Brilliant.
It’s a story that is worth telling. As will happen when history is turned into film, corners get cut and history gets simplified. The difficulty with Hidden Figures is that in this process the characters become one-dimensional stereotypes and much of the power of the narrative is lost.
It is interesting to contrast this film with The Imitation Game, the story of the tortured genius Alan Turing.
Alan Turing and Benedict Cumberbatch
The comparison is probably unfair because The Imitation Game a much better film.
But this because it has a central dramatic tension that revolves around the role of Turing’s genius, his homosexuality and its relation to a wider society. These unique and distinctive elements do not exist in historical background for Hidden Figures and a filmmaker was always going to struggle.