I only got the pun in Hidden Figures’ title as I was leaving the theatre. At that point it hit me like such a ton of bricks that all my bones simultaneously broke and I melted into a puddle on the floor. I’m not sure if that means it’s a good pun or a bad one, probably both. All the best puns are just the worst. Of course the title has little if anything to do with the actual content of the film, I just wanted to mention it here because one, I’m an idiot, and two, it makes me want to tear my eyes out of head.
The wholesomeness and and cheese of a good pun though is really a great primer for the film though. Approach it on its level and it’s a blast, the film doesn’t have an ironic bone in its body. The stories of Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn are approached with the eager enthusiasm of a storyteller who just believes they have a gosh darn heck of a story here, and they’re going to insist and insist upon it until all listening are swept up in the earnest expression of pure love that comes in the telling.
If a film ever believed in the incalculable worth of goodness, it’s this one. Our heroes are virtue poured and moulded into human form, each their own Jesus reincarnate. We in the audience are blessed with the opportunity to spend time alongside the angels on the screen, and the film wants us to be better people for it. It really manages, by being sun drenched and propulsive and charming, it’s produced by Pharrell Williams, of course it wants to fly.
It has to, it’s a film about reclamation, in this instance the reclamation of prestige from the institutions of whiteness and maleness that have sought to colonise it since, well, forever. A film that centres minority leads, in the case black American women, in a story and, crucially for our modern age, a profession that has too long been framed as white men’s work. The film knows what’s it is trying to do and as such does not, for a single second, underestimate our characters. Too easy would it have been to draw drama out of the insinuation of incompetence on their part, ‘perhaps they couldn’t?’ a lesser film teases. This film knows damn well they can. They can and they did. So why preach self-doubt? Self-love much more important.
And there’s gonna be men out there (it’s always men) saying that these characters too good. ‘They’re Mary Sues!’ come the far of cries of the critics all too happy to overlook cinema’s preponderance of perfect white men, too fragile to let anyone else get a chance. Come on, there’s even good white people in this film too, existing, as progressive white men always do in narratives of oppression, to absolve the audience of any of those complicated, messy feelings they might feel about being one of the bad guys. It’s a film with heart, too compassionate to all its characters (and the memories of the people they represent) to get proper mean spirited, so it light on that condemnatory zeal that we crave.
Which brings us to the crux of the film, cos how do you represent the systemic crushing oppressions of racism and misogyny in a film too nice to accurately portray systemic crushing oppression? You cast three truly great actors who can reflect these character’s lived experience of struggle and hardship, while still carrying the work of pushing the film onward at every moment. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer are just out of this world as the trio of NASA mathematicians working on America’s first manned space mission. Like there’s not much more to say than that, they take their material and knock it right out of the ballpark. Playing a whole ‘nother game here.
Each attempts, in their own way, to together carve their own place in NASA, attempting to find a way out of the western block where all the human computers work out the maths that makes space flight possible. Goble’s knowledge of geometry puts her in the Space Task Group, devising new ways to calculate orbital trajectories. Jackson goes to court, fighting for the right to the education required for her to become an engineer. Vaughn, learning of the IBM’s introduction to campus, teaches herself (and others on her team) to program so they can be best set up for the wave of the future.
Listen to the language that the script employs when the characters do all this stuff. It is so convinced that it is the coolest thing in the world. Sure, it’s maths, but its spaceships too, but the script deliberately sidestracks that. Characters speak in reverence of ‘the numbers’, the difference between ‘the right numbers’ and ‘the wrong numbers’. Strength defined by the fact that someone has ‘good numbers.’ When Mahershala Ali’s character starts courting our lead, he immediately puts his foot in it but suggesting that women ‘don’t have numbers.’ The word takes on an almost mythological stance as it rolls into itself over the course of the movie. Does it matter what you do with them, the film asks. Just having the knowledge is power, and not a masculine power or a feminine power, just power, and that’s just great.
Where’s the ground to tread when a movie is just this unapologetically, joyously good? It’s such a tight-woven little yarn ball of a film there’s not really any interesting anomalies to pick at around the edges. It’s just this meticulously constructed whole. A bouncing, bursting, fizzing movie so well executed it seems effortless. But I walked into the theatre not knowing these people’s names, not knowing what they did. Now I do, and I’m more for the knowledge.
Like when you watch a great film, the world seems wider. It tugs at the edges of your vision and you’re aware of more life seeping in through the periphery. It can do that to an adult: take your daughters, take your sons, it’ll stretch them so much more.