Some films benefit more from the circumstances of their release than the quality of their production. Hidden Figures is certainly competent. The four leads--Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Kevin Costner--turn in strong performances. Director Theodore Melfi shows little flair, but has a solid grounding. No shot looks out of place. Despite this, it’s hard to imagine Hidden Figures enjoying its regard or box office success without coinciding with Donald Trump’s transition into the presidency.
That Hidden Figures managed to eclipse Fences, with its virtuoso writing and incredible acting, in terms of public excitement deserves greater scrutiny. Both films dealt with the black experience during the civil rights era, but both dodged expectations. Fences initially implies that its underlying conflict will be one man against institutional racism but then pivots to an introspective look at the morals of a contemporaneous black family. The promised struggle against institutional racism is resolved off screen so casually that actors laugh at its insignificance.
Hidden Figures is not so deft. There are scenes of civil strife and footage of Martin Luther King shows up, but these are included as a matter of formality. In this Hidden Figures has nothing much new to say, and doesn’t exert too much effort trying. Its true passion lies in its three portraits of female exceptionalism. In promotional interviews, Taraji Henson made clear she saw Hidden Figures as an inspiration for girls, not just black girls. More than anything this acts as a critique on the attitudes of the Donald Trump era and elevates watching Hidden Figures to an act of protest.
Before the era of micro computing, the mundane work of computations and math was not glamorous and often regulated to women. NASA employed dozens of black women as “computers” responsible for fleshing out the math behind the equations produced by the male engineers. Math is distinctly un-cinematic and the films that try to tackle it often need to offset it with dynamic visuals. Figures makes the most of its NASA pedigree, building to a climax where furious pencil scribbles cut into sequences of fireballs and mass lift off.
NASA remains one of the most beloved of American governmental offices, and its deliciously uncomfortable to see it reflect on its own part in cultural segregation. They were always a progressive institution though. Once confronted with their behaviors one by one each white composite character actively attones for contributing to the amoral status quo and redoubles their efforts toward the true goal of reaching the moon.