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Space race saga's Black history through White eyes

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Tim Kroenert |  13 February 2017

 

Hidden Figures (PG). Director: Theodore Melfi. Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons. 127 minutes

Writing for the Guardian about the critical backlash surrounding La La Land — on the basis of, among other things, its treatment of race and gender — Hadley Freeman notes this is now the pop cultural world we live in. 'Every piece of art is now politicised and parsed for its problematic elements,' she writes. 'These complaints may take some of the joy out of a film intended only to entertain, but they also reveal vital perspectives that have been hidden for too long from our white-male dominated discourse.'

Far be it from me to want to take the joy out of Hidden Figures. The film — one of a trio of films about the experiences of Black Americans that are in contention for this year's Best Picture Oscar — has a great story to tell. It takes as its focus the experiences of Black women living in 1950s America. It's a time where segregation is official policy and the civil rights movement is heating up. At the same time US-Russian relations are colder than ever, one expression of which is found in the burgeoning space race.

Against this backdrop a crew of Black American women, prodigious mathematicians, is working at NASA. Their segregation is manifest in a lack of job security and opportunities for progression; in the disdainful stares of their White colleagues; in the demarcation of physical spaces, including bathrooms. In discourse about disadvantage we talk about intersectionality, where multiple categories of discrimination overlap; as Black women these characters face challenges to their social flourishing on multiple fronts.

At least three of them are destined to make history. Mary Jackson (Monáe) will become the first Black female engineer at the American space agency. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) will find herself supervisor of the department running the monolithic IBM computer that might, if not for her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, have signalled her obsolescence at NASA. Most thrillingly, Katherine Johnson (Henson) will play a key role in navigating the vertiginous mathematics involved in achieving a return journey to space.

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer Hidden Figures posterHidden Figures tells their stories with aplomb. The writing and performances draw us into the women's lives. Katherine is subject to a (admittedly tepid) romantic subplot that typifies the film's appeal to a broad, sympathetic audience.

 

"Accusations of 'cultural appropriation' might be uncharitable. There is no question that this is a well-intentioned film. Nonetheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that this is Black history filtered through White eyes."

 

We barrack for Katherine, Dorothy and Mary as they navigate prejudice and a bureaucratic regime that's stacked against them, striving to attain the professional achievements to which their gifts and hard work entitle them. The story is not only important, it is entertaining and emotionally resonant in its telling.

Still, with a nod to Freeman, there is parsing to be done. These characters are Hollywoodised exemplars of the American dream, where through persistence any obstacle can be overcome in the pursuit of prosperity. But their exceptional cases don't disprove the fact that the dream was and is a fairytale for many. As a film that purports to deal with racial prejudice in that period of US history Hidden Figures is decidedly soft, almost nostalgic, as if racism is a quaint concept that doesn't continue to affect the lives of real Americans today.

Accusations of 'cultural appropriation' might be uncharitable. There is no question that this is a well-intentioned film. Nonetheless, it is hard to shake the feeling that, even though it is based on a non-fiction book by African-American writer Margot Lee Shetterly, this is Black history filtered through White eyes. Indeed both director Melfi and his co-screenwriter Allison Schroeder (whose notable previous credits include Mean Girls 2, the made-for-TV sequel to a decent satirical film about rich white girls) are White.

This is not to say that writers and filmmakers can't enter empathetically into the experiences of others unlike themselves. But the short shrift given here to the real, continuing hardships of Black experience raises questions about objectives and authenticity. There's a gag about sitting in the back of the bus, the realities of segregation dismissed with a giggle and an eye-roll; references to university sit-ins and the Freedom Riders firebombing are seen through the eyes of Mary's cartoonishly earnest husband.

On the other hand Hidden Figures' White characters are either the object of contrived sympathy — see Costner's Al Harrison, fictional head of the Space Task Group, battering the sign to the 'Colored Women's Restroom' while a group of said 'coloured' women watch in awe; or else they are too thinly drawn to invoke anything resembling genuine menace — see Dunst as the stern middle management-type tasked with doling out assignments to Dorothy and co., or beloved sitcom star Parsons as Katherine's vaguely unlikeable rival.

It is obvious that the film has been designed to (and will) appeal to a broad, mainstream audience. And for these women's stories to be heard as widely as possible is certainly a good thing. Furthermore the film's Oscars recognition, notably Spencer's nomination for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role, is commendable in a year where the Academy has sought to reddress its racial bias. These facts notwithstanding, it is hard to see the sugar-coating of genuine justice issues as anything but a disservice.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.

 



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Dear Tim, One film can't do everything to address the many wrongs involved in discrimination and segregation, but at least this film does tell the story of three very exceptional women who succeeded despite the many barriers put in their way. Overwhelmingly Hollywood tells the stories of white Anglo people. If Afro-Americans are depicted, they are very often seen as servants or criminals or drug dealers or as people who will never succeed. Hidden Figures challenges those stereotypes brilliantly, and helps ask the question 'Who else could succeed if the barriers that impede their progress were taken down?"

Sandra Houghton 16 February 2017

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