2017 Oscars: ‘HIDDEN FIGURES’ (2016) Movie Review
A biographical film about the real life African-American women who worked at NASA, notable for their behind the scenes contribution to the space program, is one of 3 films in the top contenders at the 2017 Oscars that feature an all African-American stories with an an African-American cast. But the reason why ‘Hidden Figures’ deserves to be nominated is simply because it’s an engaging story about overcoming race and gender, at a time when being either was a struggle.
While an interesting true story about real life people, ‘Hidden Figures’ stands out by being a film that deals with the main characters’ struggle due to their gender and race, but it does so displaying a quiet strength and a suppressed courage that never boils over, or makes an easy demon out of any one person, but rather the situation itself.
Given the climate today, this even keeled story and portrayal of characters that can be consisered the antagonists with perspective, further enhances the 3 main characters and their trials and tribulations throughout. While blatant racism and hate can be fought against with the same fire, nuanced discrimination can at times be just as frustrating if not more so.
‘Hidden Figures’ tells the story of 3 Black Women in 1960’s NASA, and their uphill battle to equally contribute to the Space Program, and have their efforts be acknowledged.
At a time when racial and gender roles were very much discriminated against, 3 women working in NASA as mathematicians, get opportunities to be a part of big picture goal of sending a man to the moon. The story showcases the struggle of these women, already dedicated in their jobs, wanting more to develop their career further and be given the opportunity to grow professionally. To b a part of something bigger than themselves, and be considered equal contributors to history and society in general.
The most notable of the women is Katherine, (Taraji P. Henson) who was featured earlier in the year in an episode of the TV Series ‘Timeless’, played by a different actress. Considered to be the unsung hero of the Space Program, Katherine was responsible for creating mathematical equations to determine exactly how to send a man in space and, more importantly, how to bring him back. The film focuses mostly on her than the other characters, showing her personal as well as professional life.
Henson is stunning in a role that more often than not makes you giggle at her quirky and awkward demeanour. She’s almost at times oblivious to the racial bias most people have against her, especially when she is absorbed in her work. This makes it all the more hurtful when she suddenly becomes aware of the her skin color, as people around her react to her actions. It’s a very somber and sharp distinction that is otherwise a lot more dramatic and loud in other films with similar themes, but that in a way also makes this kind of depiction of racism a lot more intense and tragic.
Henson is almost unrecognizable from her other more vivacious roles such as the one in the TV Series ‘Empire’. She plays Katherine as a quiet, mild mannered woman, who relies on her smarts to get her by. It’s entirely too cute to see the otherwise strong willed Henson play a character who is meek and overly excitable, while still being confident and self assured. When Katherine’s work at NASA is scoffed at by potential love interest played by Mahershala Ali, (‘Moonlight’) she does not hesitate in giving him a piece of her mind.
Equally strong in the film is Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Dorothy, as the mother hen to the group of women. Doing the work of a supervisor but not actually being given the title or pay is the arc of Dorothy through out the film. She has to learn to evolve her role, when new fangled IBM computers threaten to make job, and that of other Black women in NASA, obsolete. Dorothy is strong willed, outspoken and proud of her accomplishments, and Spencer plays her accordingly. Spencer is nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 2017 Oscars, and it’s not hard to see from this performance why.
While Katherine may be oblivious to the discrimination around her at times, Dorothy is painfully aware of what’s keeping her down in her professional career. Despite it, she’s respectful and polite, but still assertive in asking for what he is owed. Dorothy embodies the power of an unapologetic Black woman who knows that she is in the right, and is waiting for the world around her to adjust accordingly. It’s a very powerful performance that doesn’t go into huge monologues or drawn out speeches of freedom. Simple scenes with her sons are enough to reveal exactly how Dorothy feels about her place in the world, and she’s not letting anyone tell her otherwise.
The third character of the movie, and one less focused on, is Mary played by Janelle Monae. Wishing to further develop her existing career in NASA, Mary has to take her case to court, just to be allowed to study in an all White school, in order to even qualify to take the training to become an Engineer. Mary is the sassy one in this group, and she plays the role to perfection. Her no BS attitude and lack of mouth-to-brain filter, makes her a fun character, but one that you empathize with even more when things get serious.
‘Hidden Figures’ is an impressive and engaging bio-pic, with a pretty straightforward narrative flow of real life characters who achieved great things, and their struggle to do so. Where the movie really stands out however, is in its depiction of the traditional White people in the story, those devils! But the thing here is, that those characters, treated usually in a film as the obstacles standing in the main characters’ ways, are depicted here in a manner that is not stereotypical or formulaic.
Kevin Costner plays Katherine’s boss Harrison, and while he is never overtly racist to her, he’s just as ignorant to the troubles she faces everyday as a Black woman in a White man’s society and workplace. When faced with the reality of it all, he warms up to her, still hesitant to break convention but acting very awkwardly when he gradually does. It’s a counter programmed role from the typical older mentor character archetype that supports the minority and fights for her. Even Harrison’s‘ biggest act of acceptance in the film comes more from a self serving need, than from noble intentions.
Similarly, Katherine’s colleague Stafford, (Jim Parsons) initially dislikes and causes problems for her, but eventually, through Harrison’s insistence, comes around. But the character isn’t shown to be a horrible person with hate for Black people in his heart. He acts like a dick for sure, however, it’s more based on his own experiences in society than malicious intents. This subtle racism is further show in Dorothy’s experiences with her boss, Mrs. Mitchell. (an unrecognizable Kristen Dunst) While constantly spouting racist views and perspectives, Mitchell herself believes that she’s not doing anything wrong. So when Dorothy finally achieves the respect from her that she sorely deserves, it’s an achievement that is based on mutual understanding between the two, and not an overwhelming defeat of a terrible human being.
‘Hidden Figures’ tells a relatable story about 3 women acting as role models, where the real antagonist is the perceptions of society, than any one person.
And this is why I think I liked ‘Hidden Figures’, more than the usual bio-pic set in similar time period, because the terrible circumstances of Society weren’t personified in any one character in the film. There are no villains to defeat, but more the atmosphere of the time itself, and an internal conflict of overcoming one’s own fears and gaining the courage to keep living in the right, despite the world telling you otherwise.
‘Hidden Figures’ is able to tell a highly successful true story about math and people who love math, in an engaging and interesting way, (who would’ve thought?!) while avoiding the usual tropes of this kind of a drama. Henson is brilliant in a performance that is sweet and a joy to watch. Her depiction of a Black woman’s utter frustration with a system that’s unfair to her is heartbreaking, especially in one scene. Spencer is just as calculated in her performance,as Henson is emotional with her’s. The supporting actors all lend incredible weight to their stories and makes the movie a better film all around.
‘Hidden Figures’ is nominated for Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay at the 2017 Oscars.
The 89th Academy Awards will be airing on ABC on February 26th, 2017.