The Movies of 2016: Hidden Figures

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This is a film that makes its mission very obvious from its title. When we think of the great accomplishments we’ve made in human history, often there are individuals – and groups – whose contributions go unnoticed. In the case of Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé), these women faced both sexism and racism while working at NASA, as astronaut John Glenn (Glenn Powell) prepares his historic space flight.

“Hidden Figures” is an important film for a multitude of reasons – not only are stories about women of color rare in mainstream Hollywood, but women and women of color face a number hurdles when going into STEM that men do not have to. This movie is also a reminder of what racism looks like – we often see racism as loud and overt, but implicit racism can be just as ugly and damaging. “Hidden Figures” is a real crowd-pleaser, one that doesn’t need CGI spectacle or witty one-liners, but is instead carried by strong performances and powerful truths.

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To be quite honest, I am not particularly fond of historical dramas – generally I feel that the real life stories that they portray are far more interesting than the movies themselves, which usually distills them, compresses events and characters, features a soundtrack with obvious period song cues,  and has unremarkable cinematography. While I don’t believe that “Hidden Figures” was completely immune to any of these, I think that it was ultimately the high-caliber acting and smart screenwriting that helped this movie to set itself apart.

Henson plays mathematician Katherine Johnson, essentially the protagonist of the film. Efforts to send John Glenn are doubled, and as a result, Johnson is moved from the all-black group of the “West Area Computers”to the Space Task Group, under supervision of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), to assist in Project Mercury. As the only person of color in the workspace, Johnson works through more opposition than any other character in the movie – she frequently runs all the way back to her old building to relieve herself, as there is no “Colored Women” bathroom, she is forced to drink out of a separate coffee pot that it never filled, and she is consistently treated cruelly by colleague Paul Stafford, played by Jim Parsons in yet another role that makes me want to punch him in the face. Yet, Johnson faces and navigates through the casual racism, simply trying to prove her worth and make ends meet for her children, until she comes to a point where she can no longer take it and gives an angry and empowering speech to her co-workers. It’s a speech that directly leads to Harrison beating down the “Colored” sign from the women’s room, a powerful reminder that it takes people of all races to combat racism.

It seems that much of the awards shows have been focusing on Octavia Spencer’s performance, but I believe that Taraji Henson is the true heart and soul of the movie, and it’s one of the best performances of the year.

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That isn’t to take away from Spencer, who plays mathematician Dorothy Vaughn. As the aspiring supervisor for the West Area Computers, Vaughn faces her own opposition in the form of her supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Mitchell’s character represents the dangerous role of complacency in racism; Mitchell constantly shoots down Vaughn’s requests to apply for a supervisor role, and saying “that’s just the way it is,” a phrase repeated (perhaps in a ham-fisted manner) throughout the film, adding “you’re lucky to work at NASA at all.” But Vaughn and the other characters are too intelligent, too full of ambition to be complacent the status quo of systemic racism. Instead of letting herself and her “computers” be replaced by a new IBM computer, she does her homework and learns how to work and fix it, becoming an essential programmer and worker. When Mitchell finally offers Vaughn a supervising position, Mitchell claims that she has nothing against her and her co-workers, to which Vaughn replies with the best line in the movie, “I know you probably believe that.”

The issue of complacency and systemic racism is handled extremely well throughout the movie, with smaller cases like a librarian who removes Vaughn and her children from a library; the librarian may not have had personal prejudices, but she does this anyway as “it’s just the way things are.” I would hope that a film like this helps some of the more oblivious people in our society to this issue that is still very much alive.

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Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson has a comparatively smaller role, but a good one nonetheless. She too combats systemic racism, but through legal means, in order to take classes at an all-white school to qualify for an engineer position at NASA. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the court scene, in which she easily convinces the judge to permit her to take the classes, saying that while it’s true that what she is trying to accomplish is unheard of, that’s exactly the reason she should be allowed to. Besides the three principal subjects, Harrison, Stafford, and Mitchell, the only other character probably worth mentioning is Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), the love interest, and later husband, of Katherine Johnson. He has an essential scene near the beginning of the film, where he attempts to court then-Katherine Goble. He expresses doubt at her ambition, reminding audiences that these characters not only had to combat racism, but sexism as well.

The backdrop of the American Civil Rights movement is important, but it is less the focus of the film than the three main subjects. An early scene has Jackson argue with her husband on how the movement should conduct itself, with her husband stating “sometimes civil rights isn’t civil.” But besides two very brief moments involving violence on the news and protests on the streets, the film never really says anything else on the matter; but that big fish wasn’t necessarily the mission of the film anyway. As implied, the film does suffer from some of the pitfalls of historical dramas; the film’s tone is generally upbeat with period (and I believe some anachronistic?) songs, but there aren’t really any memorable music moments in the film. And after the jobs of the characters involving John Glenn’s mission are completed, the film tries to add tension by depicting the (historically accurate) anxiety and mechanical problems of the flight, even though none of the characters on the ground really have anything to do with the scenario. But these are all ultimately nitpicks in an otherwise solid movie.

I will admit that I am a sucker for genre movies, sometimes ones with superheroes beating each other up, but if I was taken with this film, I can imagine how women and people of color, specifically those who work in the STEM fields, are excited, energized, and inspired by this movie. I’m glad that this movie is a success, artistically, critically, and financially, and I hope it gets even more attention when the Oscars come around. With the current state of discourse in this country, I would hope that everyone, regardless of background and ideology, would take something away from this.

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