Hidden Figures, one of the most talked about and groundbreaking stories of the 2017 award season, rounds out this year’s nominations at the Academy Awards. Appearing in three categories including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (for Octavia Spencer), how does it stack up against stiff competition?
Based on the book Hidden Figures — The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie chronicles the true story of three African-American women — Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) — working for NASA during the early 1960’s, a time when no one of their race or gender would have been envisioned in such a position.
Johnson is a widowed math genius who crunches the numbers and advances the calculations, practically single-handedly, for the rocket launch that sends John Glenn into space. Vaughan works her way up to lead programmer of the IBM 7090, the one that infamously takes up an entire room. And the bold, undeterred Jackson jumps through Virginia’s discriminatory academic hoops to complete her engineering degree.
The script is on a different track from what we’ve seen take the Academy by storm the last few years. Civil Rights-era tumult is shown but the tone is lighter, more low-key and uplifting, not unflinching like 12 Years a Slave or as taut as Selma.
In spirit, Hidden Figures is a throwback, capturing its place and time through a lens similar to Old Hollywood. Characters are courageous and heroic but don’t plunge into horrendous, nearly unwatchable conditions (for that, see Hacksaw Ridge).
Strife consists of changing hearts and minds in the workplace without taking to the streets very much. Bigger fights are picked over a coffee pot or access to a bathroom than seats at a lunch counter or voting. And they are resolved either by management or in a courtroom with little resistance.
Visually, the film resembles The Help (no surprise, considering setting and the presence of Spencer), or something like a more polished Hallmark movie. One turned to 11 or 10.5, at least; classy but could have found life as an ABC miniseries or Netflix original.
The big difference, of course, being the ensemble cast (a selling point of any picture boasting Oscar noms), as short as it’s sold. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) shows up in the middle of his busy year to do not much, unfortunately, except play Henson’s man candy. Singer Janelle Monae (also in Moonlight) is a revelation as Mary Jackson, a role that suits her spunk and vintage style, but her performance is not even nominated (figure that one out).
Aside from all that, in Hidden Figures, you have a charmer and a fun ride. Your whole family would enjoy it and it’s an inspiring history lesson we’ll all be reminded of more frequently from now on.