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Hidden Figures, Visible Baiting: The game of imitation in Hollywood biopics.

(Some minor spoilers in this review. But not much really. After all, it is a historic biopic… and just so you know… John Glenn did make it into space.)

So Steph and I went and saw Hidden Figures yesterday. I had really been looking forward to it. In fact, I maybe made the mistake that I always try to avoid when going to see a movie. Usually I try to go in with no expectations. I don’t want to be disappointed by something not living up to the hype and I don’t want to be tricked into thinking I liked something just because it wasn’t as awful as initial reviews or trailers led me to believe it was. That was pretty hard with Hidden Figures. When I first saw the trailer my initial thought was “well, that’s Oscarbait” (this isn’t a problem. I actually frequently like Oscarbait movies). Then, over the last week with the critical and popular acclaim that has been impossible to ignore I started thinking “wow… I guess the Oscar baiting is working.” It was impossible to ignore.

But I tried my best.

I’m glad I did. As I was sitting down to watch the movie I thought to myself “this is going to be amazing!!!” And then I caught myself and said “no, wait… don’t do that. Watch this and enjoy it for what it is. And it’s a good thing I did that, because otherwise I probably would have been really disappointed.

Instead, what I saw a pretty good movie.

It was by no means a perfect movie. I’m not even sure that it as a *great* movie per se. But it was pretty good. Above average. Enjoyable all the way through.

One really good way to bait the Oscars is to make a socially relevant biopic. There’s two aspects that go into this. First of all, the Academy loves a biopic. And there’s good reasons for this. There’s something of a challenge to presenting the life of a real person. Real people are complex. And when a writer, and actor, a director and everyone else on set can combine to present the audience with a view into a character that is very tangible and very real, that is an accomplishment and it should be celebrated. I love a good superhero movie, and Robert Downey Jr. should certainly be celebrated for bringing as much complexity and depth to the character of Ironman as he has — far more than needs to be there for those films to make money. However, Ironman will never be as complex and nuanced as Katherine Johnson was in this movie because Katherine Johnson is a real life, complex and interesting human being and Taraji P. Henson did an amazing job of de-Cookyfying herself to make the character of Johnson real, relatable and engaging.

The other half of that equation is the social relevance. And that’s where the movie really shined. Diversity, multiculturalism, people of color, feminism. Basically the entire “social justice warrior” culture. These are big buzz words and that means big business. Hollywood, especially the Academy, likes to feel good about itself when it feels like it’s doing something positive and making a difference, an nothing does that like telling the story of heretofore undiscovered minority women who were the secret backbone of one of America’s proudest and most inspiring moments. Yay us for being progressive. Something like that. And this is an important thing. Being able to spoonfeed history dressed up as entertainment is good.

But beyond the need for simply presenting a lesson on the historical significance of the civil rights movement of the sixties. The film seems to be a direct attempt to address the controversy of Hollywood not offering meaty enough roles for minorities, and particularly women of color in order to warrant recognition at the Academy Awards. Or, as it is often summed up, #OscarsSoWhite! This is a clear attempt to address that. By shining a light on the accomplishments of black women in a time in the past where they were essential to the success of the country but invisible, the film attempts to make a statement about their similar invisibility in the media today. You can almost feel the movie saying “look, black women! Black women right here! You looking for black women? We got your black women!”

And that’s not exactly a complaint. They did a good job with it. Henson is really good and does an amazing job of presenting a the character of a black woman in 1961 who must walk the line between showcasing her own brilliance while not overstepping her bounds as an impoversihed member of the society of which she is a part of. There were even some parts while watching where Steph leaned over to me and mentioned that she was surprised that this or that aspect of racism existed at a place like NASA in that time period. So yay! Learning is good! Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, similarly shines. Though in her case, this is maybe less surprising, given that she’s already received an Oscar for playing a similar character in The Help. If anything, I’d worry that she’s going to start getting typecast. And perhaps she already is. I feel like producers are starting to say “we want to make a socially conscious movie about the civil rights movement. We need to feature a sassy but respectable black woman. Someone get Octavia Spencer on the line!” Even better, at least for me, was the third lead, Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson. She did an amazing job. Despite being the C-storyline and having the least to do o the three principle actresses, she was amazingly believable and worked to earn the audience’s respect for every second she was on the screen. She was phenomenal. The main cast is rounded out by three white actors. Kevin Costner as a gruff boss who really doesn’t understand the inherent racism in the system, but when it is brought to his attention will serve as an ally of sorts because “lets move past this petty shit so that everyone can get to work, goddammit!!!” and Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst whose jobs are to be living embodiment of white privilege leading to casual systemic racism, a function that Spencer’s Vaughan has the pleasure of directly pointing out, just in case the audience doesn’t realize it… “Yes, I get that you’re not trying to be racist. But just so you know… by adhering to the racist status quo, you totally are. HTH!” They really don’t have much to do. Dunst plays “generic white lady from the sixties.” Parson’s pretty much plays exactly his Sheldon Cooper character minus the comedy. They’re good at it. But they’re as much stereotypes in this film as the token black characters would be in any other Hollywood biopic.

But the things that make it good are also part of the failings of it. First of all, it’s just very clean and neat. Hollywood loves a happy ending. It’s easier to send an audience home happy than sad. Costner’s character in particular has a moment where he becomes so offended up Henson’s Johnson having to go across campus to use the negro bathroom that he he takes a crowbar to the bathroom sign and singlehandedly ends bathroom segregation at NASA with a few swoops of the mighty white hand of God. So, at the end of the film, it just kind of feels like “yay! NASA solved racism!” and by extension Hollywood is saying “and we made this movie about black women so we’re totally not racist anymore either! Yay!” It’s all very neat and tidy and clean and wrapped up in a pretty little bow. Look, these three great women went on to have great careers and are important and honored and everything is awesome!!! And while that’s nice and all, its obviously not really true on either account, which is kind of why this movie needed to exist in the first place. It feels a tad to celebratory.

Secondly, the film has the failing of many biopics. Namely, real life just isn’t very interesting a lot of the time. Certainly not as interesting as the movies. And since movies are about tension and drama, that needed to be fixed. At the end of the day, for all of her cultural significance, Katherine Johnson’s actual job was “doing math.” She was really good at this job, by all accounts better digital computers of the time (in real life as well as in the film). But her job was still to sit down and do math, and that’s just not visually compelling to watch on screen. In fact, its boring enough that there really wasn’t enough to make a whole film out of just her doing math, which is what necessitates adding Vaughan and Jackson’s stories into the mix. Vaughan’s B-story at least kind of dovetails into the main storyline, as her struggle to gain recognition for the West Area Computing Unit (the segregated group of African American female mathematicians at NASA that the women were members of) does seem to affect the Friendship 7 mission launch and Vaughan’s promotion to supervisorship of the unit does ultimately allow the Project Mercury missions to take place. The problem with this is that it is historically inaccurate. The West Area Computers never existed at NASA. They were actually part of the NACA (NASA’s predecessor) and were disbanded and integrated into the rest of the NASA workforce when the organization restructured in 1958, three years before the film. The struggle and drama that Vaughan goes through in the movie therefore actually predates Johnson’s struggle by several years.

Similarly, Jackson’s struggle to become NASA’s first official black female engineer also occurred years earlier and was completed by the time she was actually working in the wind tunnel for the Friendship 7 module. This leads to one of the most problematic aspects of the film for me. While Jackson’s C-story of trying to gain an education so that she can be an engineer was, for me, the most compelling part of the film, the pacing of the ilm makes it ultimately meaningless. Since she achieves her goals at the end of the movie, coincident with Johnson and Vaughan achieving theirs, it is ultimately meaningless to the overall plot line. Friendship-7 had launched and the film was over. So whereas in real life, Jackson being an engineer probably was essential to the survival of John Glenn and the mission, in the movie universe, it doesn’t actually matter whether she’s an engineer or not since she didn’t become one until after the climax of the film had been resolved. This was something that I noticed while I was watching the film, even though I didn’t yet know the actual timeline of the real life Jackson (I researched it later). It felt like “Wow, this most interesting person in the movie is actually completely inconsequential. Well that sucks.” However, at the very least, it got me to do some research on Mary Jackson, and that’s a good thing.

Merging Jackson and Vaughan with Johnson’s plot line appears to have been a step to both add more diversity to Hollywood (“you wanted roles for black actresses? Well, hey we could have just given you one. But we gave you three! Please love us! Wait, what do you mean you’d rather they be spread out into multiple movies? Stop being greedy!”) and also to distract from the fact that Johnson in and of herself doesn’t actually do anything that gives much tension for the viewer to cling to. As I said before, she’s basically just doing math. Math is boring. It is super important — the film reminds us on several occasions that the math is essential to the survival of the mission — but it is boring to watch. In order to add drama and a sense of stakes as the film reaches the third act, it is necessary to create a situation where we seen Henson as Johnson basically trying to “math faster” and then running the calculations she’s just completed across the NASA campus as John Glenn is entering the rocket because Glenn refuses to launch without them. Of course if you stop to think about it, you realize that this isn’t actual drama because Glenn simply would have said no. That’s exactly what he said he would do. The actual drama of the Friendship-7 mission were the difficulties that it achieve in flight which caused it to abort its mission after the third orbit (it was scheduled for seven) but once that occurred it was too late for new math to be done. They just had to trust what they had. So the climax of the film sort of necessarily involves all the principle characters just kind of watching to see if all of their hard work actually paid off or if it was a complete failure. Having worked in the tech industry… well, that’s pretty much exactly what it’s like. You watch the product launch and you sit there and you say “please don’t blow up! Please don’t blow up!” over and over again. And it either does or it doesn’t. But the camera watches the guy actually demoing the product. Not all of the engineers and designers who worked on it standing around biting their fingernails, because… well, that shit is boring.

The movie does similar tricks to try and flesh it out by delving into Johnson’s personal life and showing the development of her relationship and eventual marriage to her second husband (which in real life also occurred two years before the movie actually begins) and to a lesser extent familial and marital relationships of Vaughan and Jackson. While this does humanize the characters a bit, it does prove inconsequential to the plot. Unlike The Imitation Game, which is in effect the same basic story (mathematician secretly helps to save the world), the personal life of Johnson never really directly plays into the events of the film (not surprising because in real life it happened earlier), so it seems ind of artificially added on. As a viewer, I am left wondering if the film had about white men trying to save the space program would the domestic life of the characters been downplayed altogether? (Hint: The answer is yes, and that movie is called Apollo 13.) As is, even though the domestic life of the characters is somewhat interesting it never really goes anywhere. The lesson appears to be “oh, and just so you know… women who worked at NASA in the 1960s were married.” Much like the five minute scene of characters watching while John Glenn (the single character in the film with the most to actually gain or lose, and therefore the focal point of the tension despite being a minor part of the narrative) this ultimately becomes filler so that there’s enough minutes to fill screen time.

So in the end, it’s a good movie. I enjoyed watching it, and I think other people should see it. But in reality, it is very much an aspect of this time. It is a response to the complaint of the last two years that the opportunities for the roles that Hollywood is currently celebrating (biopics for intellectual historic figures like The Imitation Game) weren’t available to black actresses. And so the response was to give the viewers EXACTLY that. A biopic of historical intellectual figures like The Imitation Game but this time with black actresses. It’s watchable. It’s engaging and it makes for an interesting bit of introspection as to the way the current cultural moment that the film was produced in compares to the context of the era it is portraying. But ultimately it won’t have the rewatchability that it is going for. It won’t go down as a Hollywood classic. It should get a couple nominations, and yay, there might be some black people in the crowd at the Academy Awards this year, but as good as Henson, Spencer and Monáe are, the Oscars will probably remain SoWhite. Hopefully, it’s at least a step in the right direction and not an excuse to just not try to do another film like this for another decade.

★★★½☆ (3.5 out of 5 stars).


8 comments for “Hidden Figures, Visible Baiting: The game of imitation in Hollywood biopics.

  1. avatar
    January 14, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Some random thoughts: (Spoiler alert!)

    (a) I found it amusing that everyone referred to the new computer as “the IBM.” I wondered if they actually did.

    (b) I think there’s some merit to showing the personal lives of the women in this film vis-a-vis the personal lives of the male stars of Apollo 13. Because of the greater obstacles the women encountered, I thought it was important to show us that they were supported by their spouses (which is pretty much assumed to be true of male achievers in cinema). I think what they did would not have been possible if their spouses were not supportive.

    (c) (biggest spoiler alert!) so, at the end, in re-entry, the capsule starts to burn up, and Glenn complains that it’s getting hot in here….then he disappears from the radar and communications. A minute or so later, everything is ok. the capsule isn’t on fire anymore (despite being in a denser atmosphere) and, of course, Glenn is ok. How realistic is this??

    1. avatar
      January 14, 2017 at 12:24 pm

      a) probably very realistic. Though I don’t know for sure. Brand names are often substituted for items (Kleenex instead of tissue, Coke instead of soda pop) and at that historic moment, IBM would have been the only “digital computer” that any of those people had ever seen.

      b) And that’s certainly fair. And I don’t think it was “bad” per se. I think you are right. There’s certainly a different cultural expectation to being a woman (in 2017 or 1961) and attention to domesticity is a part of that. But I’d be bad at reviewing if I didn’t point it out. And in this particular case, I wish that the integration of the domestic life with occupational life had gone somewhere instead of jus being used to say “ok, so these are human women!”

      c) very realistic. In fact, it happens pretty much exactly like that:

    2. avatar
      January 14, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      more c) here’s some video of what it looks like from the inside:

    3. avatar
      January 14, 2017 at 12:29 pm
  2. avatar
    January 15, 2017 at 9:05 am

    Dear lord I hated The Imitation Game. Why did you have to remind me of it? I am astounded it got nominations, but as you say, the Academy loves biopics, especially gay ones, as well as WWII. (And I love all the actors, and kind of worship Turing; I hated the… directing I guess? The writing?)

    1. avatar
      January 15, 2017 at 10:26 am

      I liked Imitation Game just fine. Didn’t love it. But i did like it. And given where the academy is right now, I was not at all surprised at it’s reception.

      People get upset at how the Oscars work out because they don’t really understand them. The Oscars aren’t about public perception of a film, that’s the people’s choice awards. They’re a peer recognition award. So they typically stand to show what art epitomizes the cultural direction of the industry at that particular moment.

    2. avatar
      January 15, 2017 at 10:34 am

      Which is why movies-about-movie-making are the true Oscarbait (I’m looking at you, The Artists and Birdman!)

    3. avatar
      January 15, 2017 at 10:34 am

      I actually like Birdman a whole lot


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