A truly deserved biopic, Harriet tells the story of the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who served as part of the Underground Railroad, undertaking several journeys to liberate around 70 slaves, and later serving as in the Union Army during the American Civil War (this latter part of her life forming the film’s coda, as its focus is her escape to Philadelphia and rescue missions).
Despite its obvious value, though, it’s poorly told story, with a depiction of Tubman’s devout religiousness and prophetic visions that serves to confuse more than express or inspire, and too little tension in what are really action scenes, too little sense of hardship in Tubman’s escape, work, and life. We try to keep in mind that our relationship to Tubman’s story is distanced, that its importance as a black narrative and feminist narrative is easy for us to be blind to when all we can see are flaws, but ultimately we find the film a let-down.
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Hidden Figures is the kind of film Hollywood has been praying for since #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter and Bechdel Tests. It’s also the kind of movie that Hollywood’s been making since forever but usually with men. It’s rosy and feel-feel good. Things might be difficult but if you have courage, wit and the work ethic of a Calvinist believer, you will end up in the best of all possible worlds, your world….but better. It could have been made in the forties if you cobbled together some of the plots of Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn movies.
The only difference between Hidden Figures and that type of movie is that these women are black: three brilliant women held back by patriarchy overcome insurmountable odds and manage to help send a man to the moon. They end up becoming bosses, getting married to gorgeous men and having beautiful families, all the while being saintly to the nasty white people, male and female (James Parsons and Kirsten Dunst), who get in their way, just like Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, USA, 1963) and most of his other movies. It’s not the fault of the poor sinners: they’ve yet to be enlightened. Kevin Costner is the big white daddy who resolves most problems.
The protagonists being black is a major difference to past films of this type. The title is no accident. It’s all about re-claiming that which is lost or risks being lost to an #ohsowhite and #ohsomale history. I feel churlish not liking it more. The audience I saw it with responded to everything and applauded at the end in a way I’ve not quite seen since I saw Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, USA, 1995) with a mostly black, mostly female audience when it first came out. Maybe I’m too old. The audience’s response is proof such a film needs to be made now. Yet, I feel I’ve seen it all before. And after seeing Fences (Denzel Washington, USA, 2017) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA, 1917) Hidden Figures feels particularly safe, sitcom-y, predictable and phony. I was dying for Taraji P. Henson to explode and slap somebody, even if only verbally, like she did all of the first great season of Empire (Lee Daniels/Daniel Strong, USA 2015 -).
The actors are the best thing about Hidden Figures. I love Octavia Spencer’s face, wonky and slightly crushed-in; suspicious and full of mischief; and capable of expressing all there is. I also loved Kirsten Dunst’s stuffy and repressed supervisor: she’s closed in and angry at life, feels asphyxiated by it. It was also good to see Mahershala Ali, even as the perfect man. Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monaé are clearly stars and one loves looking at them as such whilst wishing they wouldn’t quite project the smug self-satisfaction their roles demand of them. I wished instead they’d get angry and smash things and that the film would make people fell the same way. Instead, Hidden Figures feels like an ideological project designed to keep everything in its place whilst moving people up a few notches. The audience applauded. And it’s turning into a landmark box office success. But….