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Hidden Figures

We now return to my belated attempts at catching up on this season’s Oscar fare.

Hidden Figures is the true-life story of three African-American women who never got their due credit for the influential roles they played in the early history of NASA. It’s no wonder this one got three nominations, including one for Best Picture — it might as well have been gift-wrapped with a great big bow under a billboard that read “TO AMPAS” in letters big enough to be seen from space. Yet the movie has also gotten a lot of critical praise, everyone I’ve heard from really seems to like it, and the film is in fact quite good.

Our de facto protagonist is Katherine Goble, played by Taraji P. Henson. She’s a math prodigy who gets the chance to prove how brilliant she is when she’s assigned to run the numbers for the first manned space flight. The second main character is Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who became one of NASA’s earliest computer programmers and its very first African-American woman to serve as supervisor. Last but not least is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who fought her way through the segregated school system to become NASA’s first black female engineer.

All three of them are mathematical geniuses. Two of them are wives, and Katherine’s a widow. All three of them have kids. And all three of them are black women working in a male-dominated industry. In Virginia. In 1961.

(Side note: The actual events of the film apparently took place between 1958 and 1961, but the film compressed it all into one year. A questionable choice, but not a problematic one.)

To the surprise of absolutely no one, race and gender are both central issues in this film, and it’s not like we haven’t seen umpteen billion other movies about the same topics. But the context provides some crucial new perspectives. To start with, it’s not like these characters have to prove themselves by way of sports or politics, they have to prove themselves by way of physics. They have to prove themselves by way of math, which is inherently and objectively impartial. It’s so much harder for the more racist and bigoted characters to brush off our protagonists, saying the Negro women are useless and they don’t know what they’re talking about, when our protagonists write down numbers that perfectly add up.

This brings me to another crucial aspect of this movie. I kept on waiting for the cartoonishly evil dickbag to come along and say that blacks are inherently lesser beings and integration is a sin against God and nature, all while saying “nigger” every other word. But it never happened. With one or two possible exceptions that only get a few seconds of screentime apiece, that character never came. In fact, I’m pretty sure the N-bomb is never once dropped at any point in this entire picture. And I’m tremendously thankful for that.

We don’t need another two-dimensional racist in our movies. We don’t have anything more to learn about such transparently bigoted characters, and there’s no way to sympathize with them. Instead, this movie brings us situations in which everybody knows about segregation and nobody says a thing. Nobody wants to be the asshole who says “You can’t sit there, go to the back of the bus”, and nobody (with one exception, whom we’ll get to later) wants to be brave enough to speak out against the system. So instead, everyone just keeps their heads down and drifts along with the status quo, dancing around whatever words they can’t say, finding the most polite ways of nudging upstarts until they get with the program. THAT, my friends, is way more incisive and relevant and bold for a movie to do.

A great example comes early on. You might have seen it in the trailers, when our three main characters get pulled over by an obviously racist cop. A few minutes later, that same cop is escorting them to NASA. What happened in between? Well, the cop figured out that these same women are helping us in the Space Race against the Russians. A southern ignoramus who decides that he hates communists more than he hates black people — how many times have you seen that in a movie?

Another fine example concerns Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), one of Katherine’s colleagues. He’s portrayed as a smarmy little prick who’s always getting in Katherine’s way, but he never outright says or shows that he’s racist or sexist. The way he goes about things, it’s entirely possible that his constant drive to succeed has given him a perilously fragile ego and he can’t stand the thought of anyone possibly upstaging him or proving him wrong. Moreover, Paul is very fond of saying “this is just how we do things” or “this is how it’s always been done”. As if either of those arguments apply to people who are trying to do something that’s never been done before, to the point where they’re literally inventing new mathematical concepts and procedures every day.

We’ve also got Kirsten Dunst’s character — Vivian Mitchell, a supervisor at NASA — who similarly uses bureaucracy as an excuse to impede her colleagues. Moreover, because she’s also a woman in a male-dominated industry, she’s taken enough lumps to think she has it just as bad as her African-American female coworkers. There’s a great line in the film (I don’t dare spoil it here) that beautifully and perfectly calls Vivian out on what she is: A woman who’s used every means provided to her by the culture at large to convince herself that she’s not a racist.

Alas, though we don’t get the “two-dimensional racist bully” cliche, we do get the “white guy who stands behind the colored protagonists” cliche. Enter Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group. This is the gruff but sympathetic “coach” who has to convince everyone to set aside their differences and work toward the greater good. It’s a transparent character with a predictable arc, but it’s all so firmly in Costner’s wheelhouse that of course he does well with it.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention the other big thing going on amidst all this: The impending arrival of the new IBM supercomputers. For obvious reasons, this new technological advancement threatens to make all of NASA’s mathematicians and engineers — of all genders and colors — obsolete. So now on top of everything else, we’ve got the conflict of humanity versus technology in addition to Americans versus Russians, conflicts of race, conflicts of gender, and everything else going on in this picture. And yet the movie presents all of this in such a way that it dovetails beautifully.

Alas, not all of the storylines work. Specifically, everything to do with the love lives of our main characters could’ve been cut entirely. I think Dorothy’s husband (I think) shows up once, but doesn’t get a line, so that’s not so bad. Mary’s husband (Levi, played by Aldis Hodge), on the other hand, is clearly shown to be an inflammatory civil rights zealot to the effect of absolutely nothing. I mean, it’s nice to be reminded that the whole Civil Rights Movement was in full swing by 1961 and a whole lot of stuff was happening on that front, but the film had other and more effective means of doing that.

But by far the most prominent example concerns Katherine and her romance subplot with Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali). Granted, this is just about the same time when the actual woman really did get married, so it’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to include such a huge life event. Plus, Ali is a tremendously charismatic performer and that does a lot to keep the romance watchable. Even so, it’s disappointing that the whole subplot adds so little to the movie and distracts from all the stuff that’s far more interesting. It’s an essential event that feels like it was crowbarred in, and that’s definitely a letdown.

As for Henson, Spencer, and Monae, they all carry the film like champs. Spencer has more than proven herself by now, and her work here is easily on par with the stuff that got her Best Supporting Actress a few years ago. Henson does a wonderful job portraying a woman who’s patient and professional up to a point, but she’s perfectly capable of a withering verbal smackdown when pushed far enough. And Monae… god damn. I think we’ve got all the proof we need that Monae has enough talent and energy to light up the screen. Whatever “star power” is, she’s got it, and I really hope it brings her more success as an actress than she ever saw as a musician.

(Side note: Seriously, have you heard “Tightrope“? Or “Many Moons“? Such a damn shame she never saw more mainstream recognition.)

Hidden Figures was clearly made as Oscar-bait, but it’s better than the label implies. The film could so easily have rested on cliches to be just another ’60s-era picture about equality like so many others to beg for Oscar gold, but this one digs deeper to bring so much more nuance than is typically seen. Thus the film presents some new ideas while making itself far more thought-provoking and astute. It’s also a sweet little movie with some solid performances, and I always consider it a plus when a film glamorizes math and science the way this one does. If the film does nothing else, I hope it continues the trend of getting people — especially ethnic minorities, women, and children — interested in science.

 

I don’t think I’d rank this above the magnificent La La Land or the more provocative Moonlight (another film with Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali, funnily enough), both of which are currently the frontrunners for Best Picture this year. Nonetheless, Hidden Figures is definitely worth a watch.

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