Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hidden Figures (Melfi, 2016)


My first theatrical experience of 2017 was an interesting one. I wasn't all that interested in seeing Theodore Melfi's adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction work of the same name. Hidden Figures sits at the nexus of my least favorite strands of contemporary filmmaking: Award Season prestige and the "based on a true story" historical drama. A higher ratio of crap is generated by these intersecting modes of movie-making because the bar is so low; so much dreck is tolerated in favor of inflated white liberal's sense of importance at seeing such films and because the "true story" label is used as a crutch to add a dramatic weight provided by the audience. Historical dramas of this sort tend to fetishize pre-consumed media moments. All one has to do is insert the requisite Spielbergian shot of wide-eyed wonder at having witnessed Crucial American History in the Making. Complex periods of time become reduced to pop songs and magazine covers.

I was wrong on a number of levels. Melfi's historical true story drama is a rare one that actually does some filmmaking. While its still mired in the novelty of period-nostalgia and the requisite comparison of performer to historical photograph, the film avoids the pitfalls of its genre. For one, the use of archival footage in the rocket launches is inspired, crafting a sequence the manipulates texture and time into a sequence that mostly emerges from the narrative, rather than disrupting it or making simplistic claims to history.

Melfi has a keen sense of space and orientation and tells most of this story visually. The framing of access and status is more often built into the style than constant verbal explanations of the racial and gendered politics of the space and time. This is most apparent when Taraji Henson's Katherine Johnson enters into a new work space with Kevin Costner's obligatory NASA-man performance situated inside of an elevated glass office. Melfi and company emphasize these orientations and the traversing of distances to establish the quotidian racist system (to borrow Sharon Patricia Holland's term from The Erotic Life of Racism), which has the effect of implicating every single figure within this system. Racism is a system imposed upon all and practiced by all, as Holland argues, as is not the isolated actions of some bad white people nor the sole historical burden of black bodies. This is a crucial problem of White Hollywood films on Civil Rights, which always allows its white audience to identify with at least one good white person who functions outside of this system.

It is entirely possible to see Costner in this role (I'm thinking of the moment when he hands Henson the white chalk stick like the passing of a baton), the open arms embrace of allowing black women into the American Imperial Project contextualized by the Cold War. The audience in attendance certainly did. They loudly applauded the moment when Costner knocked down the metal sign that read "Colored Women's Restroom". They did not applaud the agency of the black women, the brilliance of any single moment featuring Henson, Octavia Spencer, or Janelle Monae.

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