Hidden Figures Is A Sanitized But Disarming Depiction Of Segregation: Movie Review

Starring: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

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To pee or not to pee, that’s the question. Every inspiring story has its turning point. That life-giving moment of epiphany occurs in Hidden Figures,the new praiseworthy film about racial segregation and  women’s empowerment in the America of the 1960s, when Katherine Johnson(Taraji P Henson) goes out to pee.

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Now that sounds simple enough, right? But this is American in the 1960s when Black Americans, or Coloreds or Negroes as they were called back then,has to deal with  a separate set of working ethics as opposed to the Whites. So when Katherine “goes out” to relieve herself she really goes out, to a place pretty much far removed from the spot at NASA where she has been assigned a place as a member of special task force.

How Katherine gets a position so denied to women and blacks is another story.

But right now it’s the pee that we must be with. The ‘Coloured Bathroom’ being a good 45 minutes away Katherine returns one wet rainy afternoon to her desk to be shouted at by her boss(Kevin Costner) who let me hasten to clarify, is not a villain.

(Spoiler ahead: there are no bad guys in this film).

And Katherine gives it back, pointing out in her pee complaint. centuries of segregation of humiliation that her people have gone through. This is  a truly liberating cinematic moment and one that sets the mood for the rest of this beautified often sanitized and scrubbed-out look at racial  segregation as seen in and through the lives of three spirited African American women who made a place for themselves at NASA conquering bigotry and bias.

Hidden Figures is a charming but it’s not a monumental film on racism in America  in the way The Color Purple was three decades ago or the new film Moonlight is  . Hidden Figures chooses to  portray uncomfortable home-truths as palatable digestible soluble homilies spread out into two hours of charming characters and a detoxified depiction of racial prejudice.

Even the white characters are not bad people. Not in that awful way we saw them being  in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.Here the white characters are portrayed with latent empathy. Once they warm up to out three heroines they do just fine. Dorothy(Octavia Spencer)’s  stern  supervisor played by Kirsten Dunst and Katherine’s skeptical colleague played with compelling care by  Jim Parsons, come around in no time at all.

And then there is the lovely Janelle Morae as Mary Jackson who snuggles up to the Judge in court to ask, ‘If a man can go into space why can’t a colored woman attend an engineering college meant for white folks?’ The Judge does what any man would do. He lets her have her way.

The half-smile that the Judge gives Mary is just the way we feel about this film. It may be guilty of cleaning out the hurt pain and ugliness. But it’s doing what is always right.

But Kevin Costner takes his symbolical  repudiation of racism a bit too far when we see him break down the signboard for colored toilets .There are times when you feel there could be more tactful ways of breaking down walls.

It isn’t as if director Theodore Melfi lacks  a subtle  vision. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from its vision of a world where we must overlook human cruelty and bias and hope to start a new social order where segregation is magically wiped out. Hidden Figures portrays the black community as sweet, affectionate hopeful and picture-perfect.Katherine’s home life with her three lovely daughters and a doting mother , plus a suitor(played by Mahershala Ali, seen inMoonlight as well) seems  like it’s out of Homes & Gardens.

Where is the pain and struggle of these incredibly spunky women who proved the colour of their skin couldn’t keep them down? Frankly, I didn’t miss the pain at all. Hidden Figures prettifies pain without diluting the theme of  wrestling adversity. The film prefers to wear its heart on its sleeve rather than parade the pain and poverty of a people who were stifled by segregation.

Here in this portrait of  misery in recession,we  get to meet three of the most unforgettable women played by actresses who drop their vanity and get inside the skin of their characters without fear of failure.

Hidden Figures feels lightweight while saying things about the way women specially of a particular skin-tone, are treated at workplaces.Like the 3 heroines who break the shackles of their destiny to emerge triumphant this film remains  happy at heart even when sadness seems constantly around the corner.



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