'Hidden Figures' Follows A Formula But Still Tells A Revolutionary Story
These days, audiences demand a lot from movies. With the endless availability of streaming platforms, home theater systems, and marathon sessions, the demands on a film to wow us seem to be constantly increasing. But true movie lovers will always enjoy a simple story when it's told well and acted well, even if it doesn't feature high-tech visuals or artful narrative tricks. Hidden Figures is exactly that kind of film. It tells a revolutionary story in a rather unrevolutionary, simple way, and its focus on characters, not big drama or extraneous devices, is something that we desperately need to see more of in cinema.
Based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margo Lee Shetterly, the movie tells the true story of the African-American women who played key roles at NASA during the 1960s space race. It features an amazing cast of actors portraying the real female "computers" of history; Taraji P. Henson is Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer is Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson. The trio were mathematicians, and it was actually Johnson who helped calculate John Glenn’s trajectory around the Earth before he became the first American to orbit the planet.
Overall, Hidden Figures feels very formulaic. It's a straightforward, linear tale without the technological flourishes of other holiday movies like La La Land, Rogue One, or Passengers. Instead, it follows predictable beats, with its characters' arcs following trajectories you can see coming from a mile away. But while the film may not feature splashy effects or subtle dialogue, its value lies in telling the story of three relatively unknown black women of history.
Any criticism of how Hidden Figures follows a formula is irrelevant, because that not where its revolutionary aspect lies. What makes it stand apart is how it tells the previously-untold story of three forgotten black women of science. In a time when controversies like #OscarsSoWhite and whitewashed casting prevail, it matters tremendously that we can go to the movies during awards season and see a science-based story starring three successful women of color. Even if that story is by-the-book, it doesn't matter, when the people at the heart of it so warrant getting their lives portrayed on-screen.
As audiences we've become so used to "gimmicks," like Birdman's single shot, or movies made in IMAX, or narrative devices like Boyhood's time span, that when a simple, inspiring story comes along, we tend not to appreciate it as much. Hidden Figures deserves our respect, though. The facts that it features three female leads of color, it has a focus on science, and it tells a true story that many of us didn't know about make it a worthwhile film unique in its own ways. As a lover of outer space, NASA history, and an advocate for women in film, especially sci-fi, I truly hope that this holiday season, Hidden Figures gets the love it deserves.