Monday, December 19, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Hidden Figures

Right in time for the holiday season, "Hidden Figures" is an ideal film for the whole family. Directed by Theodore Melfi, it tells the untold story of three African-American women who contributed to one of the defining moments in American history. But despite its historical setting, its themes of civil rights, feminist equality and the boundless possibilities of the human intellect hold significant relevance for modern society.

"Hidden Figures" takes place primarily during the 1960s, when Russia and the United States is caught in heated space race. Engineers, mathematicians and other brilliant minds are working around the clock to ensure that the Americans are the first to send a man into space. But unfortunately for them, the Russians accomplish the feat first. Undeterred, the NASA team strives to prove that they can equal this achievement. They are going to need all the help they can get though, as failure is not an option. And much of that help eventually came from an unexpected trio of African-American women. Their names were Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle MonĂ¡e). And with their brilliant minds they helped NASA execute the seemingly impossible, breaking societal barriers of race and gender in the process.

The film opens with a prologue set decades earlier, introducing us to a pre-teen Katherine Johnson. Her parents have just been informed of the full extent of their daughter's mathematical skills and have been advised to enroll her in the best local high school, where she graduated at the tender age of 14. Fast forward to the 1960s and we are introduced to Katherine alongside Dorothy and Mary. The trio are experiencing car trouble before being approached by a white police officer. After learning of their important jobs at NASA, he offers to escort them along their way. The scene then ends with a statement that has stuck out to me since I first saw the film's trailers. Mary exclaims that it's a miracle to see three Negro women chasing a white officer down the highway in the year 1961.

On the one hand, it's a line that perfectly fits into the main themes of the film. Indeed, Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder smartly avoid the heady science of what these women accomplished in favor of focusing on how they got there. After all, we all know how this story ends. As such, the narrative is instead framed around key triumphant moments where each woman asserts her rights.

But on the other hand, it represents my only qualm with an otherwise fine film. Namely, the screenplay and the characters often seem too self-aware of the historical importance of their involvement in the space program. And this is especially strange considering the whole point of the film is that they went about their work unheralded (hence the title).

This issue aside however, the film is truly entertaining. While there is an inescapable predictability to the narrative, the film thrives on its catchy soundtrack (a Best Original Score contender for Pharrell Williams) and the spirited performances of its cast, especially the three main performers. Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae in particular could be looking at Best Supporting Actress nominations for their work. And the film also approaches the civil rights aspect with tasteful humor. One running gag involving Katherine running to an entirely separate NASA campus just to use the segregated "colored restroom" brilliantly exposes discrimination for the absurdist practice that it is.

Of course, these women overcame these obstacles, emphasizing how much humanity can achieve when we put aside our differences to work towards something greater than ourselves. It's a beautiful message that will surely put "Hidden Figures" in contention for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. And most importantly, it brings much needed spotlight to three great minds who are perfect reminders of that fact. The inspiring stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are hidden no more.

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