This piece is based on reviews of 20th Century Women and Hidden Figures, which were originally published in earlier issues of DigBoston.
When the cinema remembers the past, it rewrites it in the image that its creators prefer. You see that play out during 20th Century Women  and Hidden Figures , two period-piece women’s-pictures released in recent months. Films like these remind us that we might have even dubbed the American cinema an “alternate history”, if the phrase hadn’t been claimed by fiction writers and conspiracy theorists first. That power—to rewrite history on the screen—has been used for evil more often than for good. I think of the biopics that smudge historical facts for the sake of small-minded commercial reasons and dimestore narrative conventions. Or I think about the tendency of such movies to wash away the work of diverse collectives, attributing whatever they accomplished to one poster-friendly main character instead (usually a white guy played by a performer on the A-list). All this to say: when the cinema rewrites history, it’s typically because it needs to bullshit you.
Different kinds of alternate histories would be preferable—the sort that challenge the canons and narratives we’ve already accepted. That quality is undeniably inherent in Hidden Figures , whose very title announces such a function. The movie is directed by Theodore Melfi, who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, both working from a nonfiction book written by Margot Lee Shetterly. Their film dramatizes the lives of three African-American women whose contributions at NASA were essential to the success of the space program during the ’50s and ’60s. And it spotlights them while sidelining the people who are usually held up to symbolize that very success—people like astronaut John Glenn, who the script quite pointedly relegates to the “supporting actor” position. If you see both films, you might even find yourself wishing that Hidden Figures and 20th Century Women had swapped titles. No disrespect to the characters in the latter film, but the individuals documented in Hidden Figures are ones that the 21st century should be obligated to remember.
Among those depicted are Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the first African-American woman to supervise a department at the Langley Research Center, and a pioneering figure in the use of the Fortran programming language; Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), whose mathematical work was integral to developments in celestial navigation; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who became the first African-American female engineer within the space program—and only after winning a court case that permitted her to take prerequisite courses at an otherwise segregated school. The script is admirably dedicated to cataloguing the various traumas (some intersecting, some delineated) that their era forced upon them. There’s the professional (being told there’s “no protocol for a woman” attending board meetings that women needed to attend), the political (the fear and fury invoked by the firebombing of the Freedom Riders bus in 1961), and the personal (a need to use separate bathrooms, for instance—which, in the NASA depicted by Hidden Figures, means having to sprint to a separate building.)
Melfi knows that we’re watching the film from the present, and doesn’t mind invoking contemporary standards to ease all this pain. Sometimes it’s via a one-liner. You know NASA, explains Dorothy’s supervisor (Kirsten Dunst), “fast with rocket ships, slow with advancement.” And that line of dialogue isn’t the only thing on the soundtrack that plays like it came from 2016: Pharrell is both a producer and a musical contributor on the film, and you hear his tracks over numerous sequences. Your first thought about the soundtrack might be, “it suggests these women are ahead of their time”, that they might’ve belonged in the 21st century, rather than in the 20th. That’d be the incorrect reading: injustice is man-made, not tied to any period of time, and Pharrell’s music is invoking something different anyway. It’s not that these women are ahead of their time—it’s that American culture lagged far behind them.
But as it regards the presentation of these injustices, Melfi’s direction seems as concerned with audience reaction as it is with respecting history. No surprise, then, that concessions are made for the sake of drama and linearity—Melfi’s film announces itself as being “based on a true story”, and he doesn’t mind stretching the “based”. Accomplishments that actually occurred over 20 years are compressed into two or three instead, so that the trio of women can be seen making their greatest strides in unison, as the formula of an ensemble-based uplift-film requires. And those characters, save for the women’s families and the aforementioned John Glenn (Glen Powell), are either composites or fictionalized outright. Their mostly-fictionalized personas, and they don’t often behave in the manner that, say, white men of 1962 might have behaved. Kevin Costner has noted in interviews that he gave significant creative input on his role, so it’s also not surprising that his supervisor character ends up literally knocking down visual symbols of segregation. He tears down a sign marking “Colored Restrooms” in a scene clearly intended to inspire applause, doing so while armed with a crowbar and a punchline. When you see those weapons he’s wielding, you want to charge him for shoplifting the scene. He’s a symbol of white tolerance in a movie that really doesn’t need one. Hidden Figures is not Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner , but Costner is playing Spencer Tracy anyway.
We know those scenes—the ones that want us to clap—are mostly lies. You could say the same about the requisite we’ve-been-wronged speeches offered by the three female leads, too, but at least they go down easier. That’s with due thanks to the actresses, who all find ways to imbue their performances with personal tics and details. It’s telling that the most evocatively-performed scene in the movie is a low-stakes one at a barbeque. Katherine has become the target of a man’s affections, and her two co-stars are pushing her towards the exceptionally gentlemanly suitor (Mahershala Ali). The scene is so formula that there’s a phrase for it (“meet cute”), and yet every moment still plays true: these performers know how these characters lived, how they talked, how they performed for one another’s laughs, and even how they ribbed each other. That’s the basis of truth that Hidden Figures maintains—if not the truth of history, then the truth of lived experiences.
And the experience most predominant in Hidden Figures is that of the black woman in the American workplace during the 20th century. The barely-unacknowledged subtext here is that all three women are on the front lines of overlapping battlefields: they find themselves within the fight for racial desegregation, within the development of modern technology, and within the fight for gender equality in the workplace (at the Ringer, critic K. Austin Collins made a related observation: “It might be one of the few Hollywood movies about the civil rights era to imagine that black lives in the ’60s, particularly black women’s lives, were affected not only by racism but also by the space race and the Cold War”). This is a dramatic interest that you might call “intersectional”, and the dialogue often underlines the way that these identities and movements overlap. In an early sequence, the three women are confronted by a white traffic cop, who does a bemused good-ol’-boy routine upon finding out they work at NASA. He exclaims his shock at their high level of employment, and you presume their race is the reason—but Dorothy cuts him off before he finishes the sentence, countering that there are indeed “many women” like them working at Langley. The choice of word might seem like a throwaway, but it’s more like a mission statement. Hidden Figures never loses sight of the complex interplay between intersecting prejudices.
Insights like that are what’s so exciting about the movie, despite its many aesthetic normalities. Melfi’s visual sense is best described as “standard”; his film looks, for lack of a better description, like television. The movie finds other ways to be radical, like by treating geopolitics and dress codes as being comparably worthwhile topics: you can say that the third act of the movie uses John Glenn’s space flight for traditional drama, but you can also say that the first act of the movie uses high heels as a thematic center. Dorothy is first seen working under a stalled car, using her craftsmanship to solve a problem—all while her heeled shoes poke out from under the hood, suggesting a role she doesn’t quite fit. For Katherine, the shoes are most prominent during her daily rush to the restroom—once she’s promoted to the Space Task Group under director Harrison (Costner), she has to spend 40 minutes per day on those trips, because the nearest facility for people of color is located in a separate building altogether. And for Mary, the shoes are briefly a matter or life-or-death stakes. During a test of a space vehicle, one of her mandated high-heeled shoes gets caught in a grate while the blasters are warming up for a simulated liftoff. “No shoe is worth your life,” her supervisor calls out. What the movie recognizes is that people like her supervisor have already equated that shoe with her life—they’ve spent generations mandating her to wear it. And it recognizes that conflict as being just as dramatic and significant as space travel itself.
Whether Hidden Figures captures and explores all the nuances of these intersections is another matter. You can debate that, or you could fairly say that it does not—but what you can’t say is that it simplifies everything. I compared Hidden Figures to television while talking about Melfi’s form—but with that said, the depiction of American race relations seen here is hardly of the sort you’d find in, say, a cable-television weepie about racial unity. The script makes no bones about the fact that the white characters are treating the black characters with humanity solely for the sake of their professional and national goals (“Are you a Russian spy?” they ask Katherine—and when she affirms that she’s not, they then demur that, OK, “we’ve got nothing to lose here”). And Costner may knock down the symbols of segregation, but he is not the motor of the story—he’s more like the adolescent narrator in 20th Century Women, who is another narrow-minded man getting his perspective widened slightly by the women who surround him. And yet: there is one particularly odd framing choice, which happens when Harrison hands a piece of chalk to Katherine. We see his fingertip moving close to hers, in an extreme close-up, and the invocation is obvious. It’s Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. You could say that the film, in that moment, has rewritten the past to place a white man in the position of God. Maybe you’d even be right. But that’s certainly not the “alternative history” being told in most other scenes. Regardless of lapses like that one, the movie leaves no doubt: Katherine created herself.
We’ve lived to see the phrase “forgotten men” make yet another comeback in American politics. These two films are a minor rejoinder—each take “forgotten women” as their subject instead. The second, 20th Century Women, is directed by Mike Mills, for whom such an interest felt inevitable. His first movie, Thumbsucker , played out from the perspective of a teenaged boy (the script was adapted from a novel by Walter Kim). And his second movie, Beginners , recounted a grown man’s past relationships (particularly a fraught connection to his father) from the perspective of the present (in that case, the screenplay was original, and partially autobiographical). So he chronicled a boy, then a father, and now he’s moved on to the maternal. 20th Century Women occasionally even feels like a rejoinder of its own: it runs counter to the formula of most male-centric bildungsromans—as though Mills now sees Thumbsucker, or the other movies in that subgenre, and wishes they privileged the women on the sidelines rather than the men in the center.
The autobiographical figure in 20th Century Women is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), who’s hitting his teenage glory years in Santa Barbara circa 1979. But he’s a “main character” the way that leading men in recent Terrence Malick movies have been “main characters”: more like he’s just a shoulder for us to look over. The women standing over those shoulders are the ones who Mills is truly memorializing. And that’s the movie’s tonal identity—it’s like a memorial. Biographies of each character are offered piecemeal, serving as chapter breaks (title cards introduce them); photographs and clips and quotations pop up on the screen within them, prodding at sense memories (lines from a Judy Blume novel, segments of a Jimmy Carter speech, quotes from a Susan Lydon essay.) Among its other qualities, 20th Century Women functions as a time capsule.
Numerous critics have listed Jamie’s interchangeability as a demerit. I put forward instead that it is essential the movie—if there is a narrative here, it regards the way that he is a blank slate, and the way that the women surrounding him become chiselers. They are his mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), born in 1929, who’s starting to perceive the limitations she faces in raising a man as a single mother; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), born in 1955, who lives in the same building, and is very slowly reconstructing her own life after receiving treatment for cervical cancer; and Julie (Elle Fanning), born in 1962, who sneaks in to sleep next to Jamie, but never to sleep with him—what she appreciates is having a boy who will listen to her, one who might be the type to remember whatever she tells him. Which brings to mind another formal element that seems essential to understanding whatever it is that Mills is getting at: Jamie is a narrator, but he’s not the narrator. Whenever there’s something that the female characters need to say on their own—because the other characters are not privy to the information, or simply because the character feels the need to express it for themselves—they take over that narration. Jamie isn’t the subject of the movie. He’s just the subject of their attention.
“I know him less every day,” observes Dorothea, who is hip enough to stay in her son’s good graces (“why can’t he just skip school,” she asks a counselor on his behalf), but not enough to keep up with his generation (in one of those shared voiceovers, she notes that he grew up “with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon”—and when she hears The Raincoats for the first time, she appears eminently aware that she won’t be able to comprehend the endpoint of all those influences). Dorothea calls Abby and Julie to her round table, then asks them to serve as mentors for her son—the trio not quite acting as mother/sister/girlfriend, but as a more nebulous united front of feminine influence. Eventually drama emerges from their conflicting beliefs. Dorothea ‘29 clutches a pearl or two when Abbie ‘55 gives Jamie feminist literature that stresses the importance of clitoral stimulation; Julie ‘62 is perturbed when Abbie ‘55 advises Jamie to be more sexually aggressive than the younger girl might like. There is undoubtedly generational symbolism in each of these three figures—they’re emblematic of the eras they were branded with at birth. But those differences are, much like Jamie, not quite the subject. For better or worse, 20th Century Women is not interested in their intersectional self-destruction so much as it’s interested in the product of their creation—in the “result” of Jamie—in looking at what happens when you acknowledge that a man is raised by women, and when you dispense with most pretenses of masculinizing him as a result.
Films set in specific periods of history necessarily broach at least two major subjects: the way that things have changed, and the way that they haven’t. In Hidden Figures, that’s all tangled up with Pharrell. In Mills’ eyes, similarly, what’s changed is the texture of the world. He’s made a point of showing us that—using insert close-up’s to make us stare at oversized bras, or at the VHS-style blur he places over certain shots, or at the boxy televisions he places in the corners of rooms, all foreign and antiquated to younger eyes. What hasn’t changed are the big questions: “How do you be a good man,” is how Dorothea puts it, when she’s recruiting Abbie and Julie to her team, before adding, “what does that even mean nowadays?” We know that we don’t have any more of an answer now than they did back then. But seeing 20th Century Women, in the now, serves as a reminder that the masculinity of 2017 has been shaped by women born in years like 1929, 1955, and 1962—and perhaps that’s an exceedingly-obvious observation, but how often do you see a movie intended to communicate it? If there is a subject here, it’s that observation. The male coming-of-age movie has a formula—and to make the male character into the passive figure utterly breaks it. 20th Century Women feminizes that formula, a creative act long overdue.
One last thing about the narration. Sometimes you wonder whether you’re hearing the sentiments of “Jamie,” or those of the author himself. One such case occurs when the male narrator begins to explain the reasons for wanting to remember his mother—and that explanation, positioned at one of the film’s essential moments, pitches 20th Century Women as being something like a personal obligation for its creator. The word “feminist” seems to pervade through the whole movie, but I do hesitate to ascribe that word to the upbringing being depicted. Such labels, in the face of something so overwhelmingly specific and interior, seem to fall short. What Benning and Gerwig and Fanning and Mills are chasing after is something less political—the time-capsule effect seems closer to their own minds and memories, given the oft-inscrutable details attached to each performance. What the movie seems most dedicated to is the act of remembering. And in that, it shares a mission with Hidden Figures: both films document women who might have be lost to time, if the people they influenced hadn’t made a point of remembering them once more.
HIDDEN FIGURES. RATED PG. STILL PLAYING AT SOME BOSTON-AREA THEATRES.
20TH CENTURY WOMEN. RATED R. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON VOD, WITH HOME VIDEO RELEASES TO FOLLOW ON 3.28.