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….
Sofia Coppola’s first film. The title’s such a turn-off that I avoided it until 2012. I thought it would be depressing but it’s not: I was a fool. It’s an engaging and humorous work with a real feel for teenage female desire and angst. ‘What are you doing here honey’, says a doctor to one of the sisters after a suicide attempt, ‘you’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets’. ‘Obviously Doctor, you’ve never been a thirteen-year old girl’. The situation and humour are slightly dark but the story is told with a welcome light touch throughout. The film’s got depth too: the scene where Trip (Josh Hartnett) leaves Lux (Kirsten Dunst) in the football field without being able to quite comprehend it himself is one of many examples. Plus Coppola’s direction allows for other pleasures: the callow attractiveness of Josh, the real beauty and skill of Kirsten, James Wood for once underplaying, and a suddenly aged Kathleen Turner, all marvellous. It’s beautifully directed but still falls apart at the suicide. What leads up to it is not quite conveyed. Surely being treated badly by a boy and not being allowed out for a while by their parents is not sufficient cause for it otherwise so many more of us would be dead. Still, it’s a delight to see a work of such skill and feeling from a first time director.
The story of the tragic queen, a kind of contextual preamble to the French Revolution, shot as a tragic teen film. The film is a sumptuous, lively production, amongst the most beautiful and entertaining films of the last decade, distinguished by its use of music, its beautiful mise-en-scène and its evocation of a long-gone world in a way that makes it timely and relevant. Sets, props, and costumes have to be amongst the loveliest ever. Clearly, a lot of that is due to the period itself, but credit must also be given to the filmmakers in having the wit and knowledge to see the value in conveying it in a way that allows a contemporary audience to understand and appreciate it. The film is wonderful at showing the enervated obsessions with lifestyle, entertainment, shopping and consumption, so similar to that of our own epoch, as a frenzied refusal of unshakeable anomie, one doomed to failure. Everything about the film evokes a delicious dialectic between luxe and loss. Kirsten Dunst, at the peak of her melancholic beauty, is peerless as the tragic queen, doing her dutiful best to please other, and when failing, which is most of the time, at least striving to please herself; but Dunst’s face palpably evokes a foretaste of doom, as if all the palaces, clothes and jewels with which she tries to shoo away boredom and the burden of duty, will not keep her from her fate. Jason Schwartzman as Louis XVI is almost as good, though he doesn’t erase the memory of Robert Morley as she does that of Norma Shearer in the 1938 version directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Yet another masterpiece from Sofia Coppola.
Worth noting that as Rosalind Galt in her great Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image (Film and Cutlure Series: New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) rightly points out ‘Sofia Copppola’s Marie Antonette (2006) addresses precisely the relationships among rococo style, radical politics, and gender, but its deconstructive deployment of the Versailles decorative regime prompted critical response to view the films as equally clueless as its protagonist. If we regard the film as something other than a discourse on girly frivolity, it is possible to read its emphasis on the decorative image as precisely the location of its political intervention’ (loc 336 on the Kindle edition).