‘Hidden Figures’ Lands in the UK, But Is It Any Good?

Hidden Figures will be released in the UK on the 17th of February, but it’s already a success story that has pundits talking. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film details the personal and professional struggles of three black, female ‘computers’ working at NASA during the space race, and their vital efforts towards the success of Project Mercury.

Don’t be fooled by what sounds like a Cold War drama – Hidden Figures is a gentle, uplifting, human story, full of victories both great and small. More than that, it’s a film that’s found an audience where common knowledge said none existed.

Taraji P. Henson stands amid a sea of white, male colleagues.
Both a film still and a visual representation of the assumed movie-going public.
Source: IMDb

Set to pull in over $100 million in the US alone, quadrupling its $25 million budget, and earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay, much has been made of it toppling a certain big-budget, similarly space-themed competitor from the box office top spot. Combine that with the fact that it foregrounds three black, female scientists as its protagonists, and it’s quickly been painted as a seemingly unforeseeable, potentially unique, scrappy little ‘movie that could’.

It’s nothing of the sort, of course; in fact, it’s a competent, well-made movie that can stand shoulder to shoulder with its competitors. If there’s nothing shocking about its success, it can admittedly seem like something of a miracle that Hidden Figures was ever allowed to exist. A 2015 study reveals the depths of the matroyshka-doll-esque unlikelihood: only 32 of that year’s top 100 movies had a female lead or co-star, with only three being women of colour. Hidden Figures matches that record all by itself, while staying clear of the usual addict/slave/maid roles generally available to black performers.

Hidden Figures movie poster - the three stars march towards the screen, a rocket taking off behind them.
Needless to say, Hidden Figures aces the Bechdel test.
Source: IMDb

This lack of opportunities is often parsed into a lack of audience interest, but Hidden Figures is only the latest in a legacy of movies that put paid to this idea, with exit polls suggesting a broad, but majority white, viewing demographic.

By any measure, it’s a success story, with many outlets suggesting that it may pave the way to greater diversity and increased opportunities that are currently in short supply. It has the potential to become a talismanic movie, especially thanks to the efforts of many, including star Octavia Spencer, who have sought to make the film available to those who might otherwise have been unable to access its aspirational, intersectional message.

The film has been described as ‘uplifting’, and that’s certainly a reasonable claim. There are moments of real upset – from the personal humiliation of segregated facilities to the spectral possibility of senseless violence – but the movie is chiefly about stars Henson, Spencer, and Janelle Monáe achieving their goals thanks in equal parts to their skill, dedication, and willingness to insist on what’s theirs by right.

The three stars dance together.
Hidden Figures focuses on both the personal and professional realities of its characters.
Source: IMDb

Even the villains have an aspirational edge. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons’ white gatekeepers are depicted as quiet, reserved people happy to accept constant injustice with the faux-conciliatory refrain, ‘That’s just the way it is’. Their acceptance of (and reliance on) a system that disadvantages their black, female colleagues is presented as timeless, and Hidden Figures offers its ideological opponents a gentle but ultimately persuasive rebuke.

The film isn’t a firebrand polemic, but it makes a quiet, dignified case for quiet, dignified humanity. A sense of fun and affection permeates throughout, with the film’s second scene, in which the three stars set to work reviving their broken-down car, setting up stall for what is, at heart, a populist movie.

If the film sounds unremarkable, then that isn’t far from the truth – no new heights are reached in terms of writing, acting or cinematography. Despite that, Hidden Figures is still a solid movie in an era of duds, and in being good rather than remarkable, it serves to prove a valuable point: movies that aren’t about straight, white men don’t have to blow our minds to find an audience.

The three stars in a car - two are bracing themselves as the other drives quickly.
And they can even be fun.
Source: IMDb

Of course, every movie is of its time, and the story of able women fighting the injustice of systemic sexism and racism was bound to resonate with the current moment, even without a goading Russian influence waiting off in the wings of the story. Good timing, solid storytelling, and a willingness to address and champion those often overlooked by major media make Hidden Figures more than the sum of its parts.

The movie isn’t without technical blemishes; the soundtrack is a little too prepared to put the moment before the whole, and the special effects don’t live up to the importance placed on them as the proving ground of the characters’ skill and accomplishments, but it’s a human drama, and these are the areas with a wide margin for error.

Octavia Spencer leads her staff down a hallway.
Hidden Figures plays to its strengths, focusing on human stories over effects.
Source: IMDb

In terms of its feminist credentials, Hidden Figures is far more admirable. Though Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is perhaps overindulged as an ally, the women at the centre of the movie are their own, and each other’s, most present and effective support. There are plenty of characters of different race and/or gender who hold the keys to the central trio’s advancement, but in each case, those keys are won rather than given. Perhaps most admirably, the decision to construct the film around multiple women eschews the notion that, to succeed, a woman must stand alone as an all-conquering superbeing. These are characters who have a community, who often depend on it, but are able to do so without relinquishing their individual agency and presence. An easy task, perhaps, with so many female characters to play with, but such a rarity that it’s another noteworthy quality in a movie with more than a few to offer.

Written by Robert Wood.

Rob is a freelance writer and editor. For more of his scribblings on gender in media, check out The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Young Adult Novel,  Why Authors Need to Take Care When Writing the Other Gender and How to Write a Damn Good Man.

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