Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, February 10, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Hidden Figures (2016)

When I first saw the trailer for “Hidden Figures” a few months ago, I thought it looked like a typically fluffy Hollywood biopic. Based on an inspiring true story that features important social implications but doesn't address them in a grounded, serious way? The trailer certainly seemed to fit the bill and I didn't expect the Academy to take the bait. When “Hidden Figures” became a serious awards contender, I was surprised. When the reviews rolled in, saying that the film was actually pretty good, I was even more surprised. Having seen the film now, I'll say this much about my initial reaction. Yes, the film is pretty fluffy but it's also fairly pleasant and more nuanced then I expected.

“Hidden Figures” follows the lives of three black women, all employed at NASA in the years and months leading up to John Glenn's historic flight. Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy from West Virginia, shows calculation skills superior to her white co-workers. Dorothy Vaughan would become a pioneer of computing technology. Mary Jackson would become one of the earliest female aerospace engineer employed by the government. Despite their obvious skills, all three of them would face subjugation by a society that would rather wish black people didn't exist.

The main reason to watch “Hidden Figures” is – no surprise here – its cast. The titular hidden figures are played by a really fabulous trio of actresses. Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson gets top billing, though all three really share the lead role. Henson's big Oscar moment is a yelled monologue about being forced to walk a mile to use the bathroom. That's a powerful moment but Henson's best acting happens during quieter scenes. The humor but steely sense of command she brings to the romantic moments with “Moonlight's” Mahershala Ali or the group playing her kids.  My favorite is probably when her white bosses confront her about how she figured out some classified information, if she is a spy. Her quiet but pointed response is funny but full of character quirks and strength.

Henson is great but Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson is probably my favorite of the three. It's probably designed that way, as Jackson has a spitfire personality. She doesn't take any guff, standing up to a white police officer and a white judge throughout the film. I also found the character's tendency to hit on men, regardless of racial constructs of the time, charming. The Academy singled out Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, presumably because they already know they like her. And Spencer is quite good in the part. Her best moment occurs when she is kicked out of an all-white library. Her reaction – to steal the book she wants and read it to her kids on the boss – is rather inspiring. (The supporting cast is solid to, with Ali, Kevin Costner, and Kristen Dunst doing solid work. Dunst's Virginia accent, by the way, is excellent, much better then Andrew Garfield's in “Hacksaw Ridge.”)

The main sources of conflict in “Hidden Figures” are the racial intolerance the women faced at the time and the role of advancing technology. As for the first issue, the film makes its point without getting too preachy. It's even somewhat subtle, as mentions of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing or King and X's protests are mostly pushed to the margins. That melodramatic scene of Kevin Costner knocking down the “Coloreds' Bathroom” sign in the trailer plays a lot better in context. The scenes of Katherine running to the bathroom are both funny but draw attention to the ridiculousness of segregation. A lot of “Hidden Figures” does that. The historical realities of segregated cafes, library, courtrooms, buses, and water fountains are all pointed out, shown as absurd. To modern eyes, these measures seem utterly inhumane. Which is precisely the point.

An interesting element the film brings up is the development of computers. Davis' Vaughan is part of the team working on creating one of the earliest computers in American history. After the device successfully comes online, with her help, it's pointed out that some people will be out of a job because of this. Humans and machines aren't shown working in harmony in “Hidden Figures” very often. At one point, we're treated to a montage of test rockets exploding. An early moment has Katherine almost caught in a test sight because of a misplaced grate and a high hell shoe. Naturally, the astronauts' various flights run into technical problems, forcing action from the characters that are more dramatic then history. The film seems to say that technology works best when bridged by a human element.

“Hidden Figures” mostly avoids the white savior narratives the Academy is so fond of. While the three women are sometimes helped out by the white people in their life, this is ultimately their story. They succeed, they persist, they challenge the status quo and push beyond it. They make history. While “Hidden Figures” might be a light weight film, it has an ace cast and a respectful grasp on history. Being around the characters, and watching them succeed, is a satisfying experience. I probably won't think about the film much once the ceremony is over but I did enjoy watching it. [7/10]

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