Hidden Figures (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Hidden Figures (2016)

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The Russians have the lead in the space race.  The United States, desperate to gain the upper hand, push their nascent NASA program to the limit.  While the public face is one of brave white pilots and leaders, their efforts would mean nothing without the hard work of the black women whose brilliance pushed NASA forward.  Theodore Melfi directs Hidden Figures, with the screenplay written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.

If I were to hang my enjoyment on the screenplay for Hidden Figures, this would be an easy Dislike.  Whole pots of characters bubble from the sidelines unexpectedly with little indication as to who they are in relation to the central three - Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).  Structurally, I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense to show how domestic life is interrupted by the demands of NASA to its researchers.  In context, Katherine arrives home to an old woman and a trio of girls whose interactions make me think of sisters instead of differing mother/daughter relationships, and Mary's domestic tension with her husband plays weirdly with her roving eye.

I could chalk up some of my confusion to being a white guy who only has brothers, but that doesn't solve the problem of awful dialogue from the screenplay.  Written by director Theodore Melfi and cowriter Allison Schroeder, the dialogue of Hidden Figures walks in a firmly grooved path of educating middle-class white Americans.  There are so many cringe worthy moments that read like footnotes to the audience, like Mary getting to tell Katherine and Dorothy that they're, "Three black women chasing a white officer in Virginia in 1961."  Not a single bit of that is undisclosed information, especially since an onscreen title card helpfully reminds us both of the time and place before the scene starts.

The cinematography of Hidden Figures shows relationships and tells the story in 1/100 of the time of the dialogue.

Having the characters speak the context of their actions, instead of watching them, is a rocky form of cinematic storytelling.  It's kind of shocking that the dry information-laden dialogue comes partly from Melfi, whose previous movie - St. Vincent - made a conscious effort to avoid sentimentalizing the pain of its characters.  The influence most likely to have shaped Hidden Figures' dialogue is Schroeder's.  She interned at NASA, a helpful credit for navigating the science of Hidden Figures, but previously wrote Mean Girls 2, and some episodes of the 90210 reboot.  It is beyond my comprehension that these two joined forces for the screenplay, and is a failure so significant I came close to zoning out as a defense mechanism against the dialogue.

Horrible dialogue be damned, I liked Hidden Figures.  The genesis of its success can be traced back to St. Vincent and the painful monologue Melissa McCarthy gives about how what she does is never going to be good enough.  Henson is the perfect actress for this kind of moment, with Spencer and Monáe up to the task in their own ways.  I've loved Henson for over a decade now, starting with her emotional work in Hustle & Flow, and initially seemed miscast in Hidden Figures.  Then, dripping from the rain, breathless from having to run between buildings, and frustrated at the microaggressions she faces at work, Henson explodes in passionate fury defending both her work and her need to be treated like a peer instead of luggage.

Henson's fire marked the precise point Hidden Figures began to work for me. In parallel stories, Spencer and Monáe resist oppression in different ways.  Having abandoned corporate life recently, I have to tip my hat to Spencer's work as a woman willing to play by the rules just enough to get a foot in the door while politely finding ways to tell others to stick it.  Spencer's acid-drenched reading of, "Have a blessed day," to racist library staff is the stuff of theater-wide applause, and is a moment of character building missing from the first half.  Monáe dominates the screen like a force of nature, demanding respect and refusing to subdue her appetite for anyone.

John Glenn (Glen Powell) couldn't have made it to orbit without Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary.  Hidden Figures also couldn't work with Henson, Spencer, and Monáe.  It's their careful balance of passion, respect, and impatience that gave me the strength to get through the first half.  Even with that respect for their work in transforming Hidden Figures, I have to wonder how vital it might have felt if someone on the caliber of Kasi Lemmons or F. Gary Gray was responsible for the behind-the-scenes creativity.  Put another way, Hidden Figures is hampered by having white screenwriters and direction, and maybe the screenwriter for Mean Girls 2 was a poor pick even with her NASA background.

Gorgeous self-reflection abound in the lonelier moments of Hidden Figures.

What issues I have with the screenwriting don't extend to the cinematography from Mandy Walker.  My question stands as to what a cinematographer like Bradford Young would have done with the material, but Walker works miracles in some scenes.  My favorite is a march spearheaded by Dorothy, leaving the dungeon-esque environment behind to new offices.  Walker repurposes cinematic history, in this case the march of the astronauts from The Right Stuff, while rooting the Dorothy-led mass of bodies into the struggle for Civil Rights.  This is powerful stuff, and is the sort of visual storytelling that works even if you don't know much about the era - something the screenplay could have used more of.

The trio of performing excellence at the head of Hidden Figures, often framed beautifully by Walker, push the latter half into a delight.  It's hard not to be caught up in the happiness of seeing these three women succeed in spite of the shoddy work elsewhere which, in a way, sums up the experience of watching Hidden Figures perfectly.  The grunt work of getting into the movie may feel like an unfair chore, but unfurls beautifully as the hard work of these three wonderful black women comes to fruition.

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Hidden Figures (2016)

Directed by Theodore Melfi.
Screenplay written by Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder.
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.

Posted by Andrew

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