A slightly re-edited post of what I put up on Facebook. Wanted to share here too because I want people to know how GOOD this movie is, and to SEE it, and to PAY MONEY to see it because money talks to The Powers That Be.
Hidden Figures runs circles – many many circles – laps and laps of circles – around a couple of the most highly-lauded films of the year. It runs circles in every way that counts: storytelling (visuals, music, editing choices), character development, script construction. EVERY scene matters. There’s a build, a flow. Nothing interrupts that flow. There’s a great build from repetition: you see the same situation multiple times throughout the film, and each time you see it, it has shifted just slightly, until finally by the end you realize that the situation has been changed entirely: total transformation. This is extremely effective in terms of how you Tell a Story.
The three lead actresses – Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae – are superb. While Henson’s character’s journey, as a “computer” working (in a group 100% white and 100% male) to figure out the New Math required to get the astronauts back home after being in orbit, takes the majority of time, the journeys of the other two are essential to getting the full picture of the sheer scope of involvement of African-American women in NASA. It’s not just the story of one woman. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, a woman with a mechanical bent (her father taught her), who oversees the group of “colored computers” hired by NASA in various capacities. It’s like a typing pool, only with math. Vaughan is a supervisor but in name only: she is not paid accordingly and does not have “supervisor” in her job title. She also realizes that that big IBM computer NASA is busy installing in a gigantic room may very well be a threat to her job security, so she sets out to teach herself programming because that’s where the jobs will be in the future. And Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, who realizes that in order to advance, she should probably get an engineering degree (she’s got a gift for it), but in order to get the degree, you need to take qualification classes, and the qualification classes are held at a whites-only school. So there’s your three-pronged structure to Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures has many cards it needs to deal: it needs to establish these characters, that world, it has to re-create those early NASA days, it has to show each of the three women and each of their very specific journeys, and it all has to feel like one thing. It succeeds in doing all of this. Theodore Melfi directed (and also co-wrote the adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book). Honestly, if the world were fair, Hidden Figures would be an Oscars sweep, in particular that script. Not to dismiss the contributions of the actresses, but that script is something else. I’d like to sit down with a hard copy of it and study it.
Hidden Figures builds, block by block, to its end, where the sensation of triumph is so intense that I can still feel it right now, just thinking about it. It’s so triumphant that at the packed showing I saw at 9:25 a.m. (a packed movie theatre at 9:25 a.m. – just think about that.) – the entire audience erupted into applause at the end – when each of the real-life women got their own credit screen and we saw what happened to each one of them. The audience didn’t just burst into applause once. It applauded for the first name. The second name came, more applause. The third name came, more applause. Then came the final credit screen: title card and director’s name. A final round of applause. This was a spontaneous reaction from a paying audience. And only a critic would think that that was irrelevant or unimportant.
Listen, I loved some of those highly-lauded films of 2016 too (although two of them have already not worn well and I saw them a month ago). But not ONE of those prestige movies – two of which will probably win a bunch of Oscars – did what THIS one did: make a bunch of strangers on a Monday morning clap for 5 minutes straight for four successive credit screens.
Maybe it’s because my background is Show Biz, not criticism/film-studies. Coming from Show Biz, as I do, the notion that “crowd-pleasing” is somehow … a bad thing? … or a not-important thing? or that it means shallow and pandering and “light” … does not make sense to me. At all. Of course if you TRY to be “crowd pleasing” then yes, it can come off as pandering, or if the manipulation involved is too obvious (soundtrack choices, etc.) – if too much of that underlying structure shows, then yes, stop going for my heartstrings so obviously, Film. But “crowd-pleasing” as synonymous with pandering?
Let me break it down for you:
I want people who think “crowd-pleasing” is NOT a good thing to go to an open mic night, stand up in front of an audience, and tell a bunch of jokes. Or prepare a Shakespearean monologue and audition for a community theatre production in your town. Whatever: I want these people to prepare something and then get up in front of a crowd and deliver it. I want them to experience the PANIC you feel when you stand up in front of people and whatever it is you are doing doesn’t land, doesn’t go well. I want them to experience the self-loathing, the terror, the Flight Response of standing up in front of a crowd and NOT pleasing the crowd in any way whatsoever. Maybe if they actually experienced something like this they wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss “crowd-pleasing” as “lesser than” the Oh So Serious Prestigious Fare, or to make the COMPLETELY INCORRECT assumption that making something “crowd-pleasing” is easy.
Hidden Figures does everything right and it does it at such a high level of competence and skill that not once did I feel its 2+ hour running time. I prefer movies to be shorter and I think most movies SHOULD be shorter. But Hidden Figures really NEEDS every single one of its scenes for the build it creates. There was no “fat” on this thing: every single section was necessary. I mean, you don’t watch Seven Samurai and think, “This would be much better if it were 85 minutes long.” There is nothing extraneous. Hidden Figures was one of the best films of the year – and now that I’ve seen it, that AV Club review is even more egregious. And don’t get me started on the review in Film Stage. And no I won’t provide the links because they don’t deserve the traffic. Fuck them. Like I always say, There is such a thing as a wrong opinion.
So let’s hear it for Hidden Figures, a film that understands how to tell a story in the way classic Hollywood understood. Give the public what they want. Give them characters they can grasp onto, conflicts they can engage in, catharsis after a long struggle. Make them clap for 5 minutes on a rainy Monday morning.
Not every work of art is MEANT to be crowd-pleasing. Many of my favorite movies don’t give a shit what I think. But to please a crowd – the way this movie pleased the crowd I was in when I saw it – is
1. an important and essential goal in this Business we call Show
2. NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS.
Please see this film. And read my friend Odie’s review.