Picking up where The Imitation Game left off, Hidden Figures arrives to crank the Hollywood virtue signalling dial to 11. Instead of a gay, British computing genius who helps the government, we get three black female math geniuses who help the government. Or to use #WOKE parlance, “womxn of color”. By most media accounts, Hidden Figures is a factually accurate account of the lives of three of NASA’s Human Computers: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Even if it boasts historical accuracy, the screen adaptation reeks of social justice grandstanding and narrative building.
On the one hand, it’s great that this story is being told and the world can appreciate the critical contributions these women made to the American success in the Space Race. On the other, it is intensely irritating to watch a film whose political agenda bludgeons you over the head with every scene. This is a film that desperately wants you to walk out of the theater determined to dismantle “white supremacy” and “smash the patriarchy”. This is a film that seems blatantly calculated reinforce the omnipresent feminist narrative that women are socialized to be excluded from math and science. This is a film whose every line of dialogue seems customized for HuffPo headlines and #WOKE Twitter. And of course, this is yet another film which portrays women as paragons of pure poise, unshakable composure, boundless intelligence, unassailable virtue, and competence in every facet of life.
The film kicks off the #RACISM narrative right off the bat. Our three heroines are stranded on a rural road as Dorothy Vaughan repairs their stalled automobile. A police officer pulls up to inquire about their condition, and naturally, he’s a belligerent, racist oaf who treats them with suspicion and contempt. Setting up a behavioral pattern that will define virtually every interracial interaction for the remainder of the film, the police officer is disarmed and bewildered to discover that they’re NASA employees. And like mathematicians and engineers and shit! Check your privilege, RACIST!
The rest of the film seems designed to set up variations on this scene. In other words, three #STRONG, #INTELLIGENT Womyn of Color suffer one racist indignity after another, but eventually get to show the dumb white supremacists what they’re made of. Dorothy Vaughan is passed over for a promotion despite doing the work of a supervisor in the West Campus computing pool. Mary Jackson is denied an opportunity to advance as an engineer because she can’t take continuing education classes at the segregated school. Katherine Johnson is treated like shit even after she’s assigned to the elite corps of mathematicians working on getting a manned spacecraft in orbit.
Hidden Figures wants you to believe that it’s “smashing stereotypes with its fearless portrait of WOC”, but it only can do that by building new stereotypes and straw men of its own. With the exception of Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison and Mahershala Ali’s Jim Johnson, all of male characters are racist dolts, faceless functionaries or power hungry bureaucrats. Even John Glenn can’t catch a break from the ever vigilant feminists at Bustle who bust him for calling Johnson a “girl”. Kirsten Dunst fares no better as the utterly unsympathetic West Campus supervisor, Vivian Mitchell. She has the thankless role of being the token white, female racist who has to repeatedly deny advancement to the heroines due to budget cuts or obscure rules. BUT WE REALLY KNOW WHY SHE’S SHUTTING THEM DOWN, DON’T WE?
The bulk of the film centers around Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson and her ascent through the ranks of the mathematics team responsible for the Friendship 7 mission. Upon her arrival, the film sets up the predictable racial tension as she is greeted by a roomful of silent white, male stares. It doesn’t take much to anticipate the trajectory the film takes, and there’s barely a surprise throughout its length. With the predictability of the mathematical equations Johnson calculates, you can anticipate every single dramatic cadence. As Paul Stafford, Jim Parsons is yet another two dimensional cardboard cutout who’s only job in the film is to bark instructions, enforce bureaucratic protocols, and marvel at Johnson’s genius when she shows him up. Costner is mildly sympathetic as the gruff department head who places his trust in Johnson’s ability. Naturally, he also gets to be the White Knight who makes the “smash white supremacy” meme literal by destroying the segregated restroom sign with a crowbar.
There are numerous points which require varying degrees of suspension of disbelief, but one of the biggest is Johnson’s relationship with her three daughters. Johnson is a widow for the first half of the film, and the only caregiver is her mother. Her daughters are extraordinarily well behaved, happy and show no signs of discontent being separated from their mother most of the time. Johnson’s male counterparts have to phone home to their wives with the bad news that the Soviet launch of Sputnik will require that NASA redouble their efforts, but the one person who’s consistenty burning the overtime candle is Johnson. SEE SEXISTS? ALL THAT NONSENSE ABOUT MEN WORKING LONGER HOURS THAN WOMEN IS HATE FILLED PROPAGANDA! WOMEN CAN SHOULDER EVERY BURDEN WITHOUT A MAN AND THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES.
To the film’s credit, they emphasize the central role that religious life played for the black community during that time. Social graces, manners, respect for elders and being well dressed are values which are consistently upheld in religious circles. The events of the film predate the Great Society and the destruction of the black family it wrought. Henson’s character is courted by Ali’s Jim Johnson, so the film is actually willing to portray marriage as a positive virtue.
I doubt there’s much discussion of it in #WOKE media, but the film touches a third rail of racial politics: the correlation between race and IQ. Charles Murray continues to be raked over the coals for The Bell Curve, but the film is portraying a phenomenon that is, in fact, pretty rare. You’ll find plenty of hand wringing in progressive publications and government websites over the shortage of African-Americans graduating with STEM degrees. The film clearly wants you to point the finger at the reliable boogeyman of #SYSTEMIC #RACISM, but the hard truth is that very few African-Americans are pursuing STEM degrees. The Hollywood and academic elite undoubtedly believe that putting forward nothing but positive stereotypes will bolster self-esteem in the black community. It may make for a great circle jerk of self congratulations, but reduces filmmaking to SJW propaganda.
Sadly, the film is also a pretty obvious bit of government propaganda. Don’t get me wrong. I remain enthralled by the possibility of spaceflight, but one simply cannot underestimate the symbolism that NASA, and by extension, this film represents. Spaceflight is largely viewed as the last remaining frontier of human achievement which can only be realized through the infinite benevolence of the State. The government wants to preserve a monopoly on this realm of endeavor because it needs to preserve some area of aspirational idealism in order to keep people distracted from all of the horrible shit it’s doing. If people continue to hold the belief that the government can be used to confer an endless array of Public Goods, then no one is happier than the politicians.
One of the biggest ironies of the film is the disconnect that presently exists between the contemporary radical wing of racial justice activism and the film’s open celebration of the MLK Civil Rights legacy. While the film lionizes the breakdown of Jim Crow laws, the collegiate safe space crowd openly EXTOLS racial segregation as next level #SocialJustice.
I wanted to like Hidden Figures, but Hollywood seems pretty intent on prioritizing political virtue signalling over making good drama lately. Everything about the film is expertly crafted, but it sinks under the weight of the agenda it’s carrying. Fences appears to be a film portraying the life the ordinary black father, but what are the chances Hollywood is going to make a version of this movie for hidden black men? I know which side of that bet I’m on.