It’s hard to be cynical about a movie as crowd pleasing as Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” This is an underserved story about the African American women who made a major, untold contribution to the space race, and it’s finding an audience.
But here’s the scene that threw me for a whirl: Katherine Johnson has earned a spot in the main room calculating rocket trajectory, but everyday she runs off to the bathroom back in the “colored” section of the NASA campus. “I have no idea where your bathroom is,” a preoccupied and disinterested secretary says to her with just a pinch of salt. Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, chews her out wondering where she disappears to each day. And in a moment of desperation, she pleads that she’s working extra tirelessly to do her job and overcome these absurd segregation barriers. After hearing that, Costner agrees. He takes a sledgehammer to the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and declares free bathrooms for all.
The first sign this is a fantasy should be that Kevin Costner’s in it. His recent career choices in “Black or White” and “McFarland, USA” have been limited to being a hard-nosed white guy slowly coming around on race. And inexplicably, in the first 30 minutes of “Hidden Figures” he starts talking and suddenly finds himself in not one, but two inspirational montages. Does that stirring music just follow Costner around wherever he goes?
But all it took for this man’s change of heart was a few words. In our divided society, where empathy is proving impossible, this sort of inoffensive, modest, crowd-pleasing dialogue is simply not enough.
Melfi’s film is the true story of three African American women who made significant contributions toward NASA in the ‘60s, helping launch a man into space and finally getting a man on the moon. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) calculated trajectories that safely got John Glenn to and from space. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) learned how to program the IBM computers used by NASA. And Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) was an engineer who helped design the heat shield on Glenn’s capsule.
Their achievements are monumental, but Melfi makes them into strict A, B and C stories, barely finding ways for them to intersect and offering way more screen time to one over the other two. “Any upward mobility for one is progress for all of us,” Dorothy says, but seeing Katherine’s story outshine the others makes it feel as though Dorothy and Mary are neglected.
But the oppression they face is all milquetoast. Everyone in the movie is racist, shocked that a black woman is in their presence. In “Hidden Figures” racism takes the form of a small coffee pot labeled “colored” arriving in the office the next day, or Dorothy being turned away for a book at the library. You cast a guy like Jim Parsons as the movie’s “villain” because even as a racist he doesn’t seem all that bad.
And where “Hidden Figures” feels phony is in the assumption that these passive aggressive, diet racists are all actually good people who can be changed if these black women work hard enough and turn enough heads. “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” Dorothy’s boss (Kirsten Dunst) says, a belief many today likely share. “Oh, I know you probably believe that,” Dorothy replies with a smile.
That scene is as modest and sweet as everything else in “Hidden Figures.” It’s just enough to make you feel good coming out of the theater and that things will change for the better. But they need to change on a systemic, fundamental cultural level if we want to see real progress in this country. Katherine’s rousing speech might be a feel-good moment good for an Oscar nomination, but will it do more? Will girls be inspired to speak out as a result of this movie, or pursue careers in mathematics, engineering and science? Melfi’s film is content to jerk a few tears when it should really shoot for the moon.