There’s something to be said for movies that get the job done. No flashy camerawork, no dream sequences, little to no subtext. Not every movie needs to be Moonlight or La La Land. Sometimes you just need to see an untold story told well.
Hidden Figures does just that. Following three black women (Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer) working for NASA in the 1960s, Hidden Figures does just about everything you would want from a period movie like this. We get a comprehensive view of the racism they faced both in the workplace and outside of it. The white people involved are not excused, but they do get opportunities to redeem themselves in the movie’s plot, which seems unrealistic. But clean period movies like this often lack nuance, and that’s okay. The story of these women overcoming the institutional and personal racism directed at them to achieve far more than anyone expected of them is enough. Nuance is for other movies.
Octavia Spencer gives the best performance of the three, but that’s really just because her character was written with the most range. She has to bite her tongue in the face of white ignorance more than the other two, and we see more of Spencer taking initiative behind the scenes. Henson has the most emotional scenes, one in which she loses control in front of her white coworkers and chastises them for how they’ve treated her, and one in which she is proposed to by a good man (Mahershala Ali). She nails both of them. Monáe, who, like Ali, is having a breakout year, is sassy and quietly strong, which nicely complements her maternal performance in Moonlight.
My personal preferences have me disappointed in retrospect that Hidden Figures was a little too well tied up at the end. Surely these women didn’t live happily ever after. But I can appreciate the beauty of a pure, Hollywood movie starring three black women that hits all the expected emotional moments. It’s enjoyable in a way that more artsy movies cannot be. If I want nuance, I’ll go watch Moonlight again. If I want pure entertainment, I’ll put on Hidden Figures.