From now until February 26th, I will be taking to be taking a brief look at the nominees for The 89th Annual Academy Awards, one film at a time in several categories.
Nominated for: Best Picture | Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) | Best Adapted Screenplay
It is difficult to arrive at a movie like Hidden Figures after having seen two inspired pictures (and fellow Best Picture nominees) about the black experience that transcended their subjects so much that they became more than just a racial profile. Both Fences and Moonlight were about black men affected by the world around them, how they see their role in the world and also the inside journey of their own souls. Denzel Washington’s film was about a very flawed man who holds court over the family, the household and the small community of friends that make up his whole world while also dealing with questions of his own mortality. Moonlight dealt with three decades in the life of a black man who is shaped by the people and experiences around him, dealing with questions of morality and personal and sexual identity. These were great films.
Having come through those two experiences, Hidden Figures is significantly more conventional. It’s more a Hollywood treatment of a chapter of African-American history that up until now has been either forgotten or ignored. It takes place in 1961 as during the heated space race between The United States and The Soviet Union as NASA feels the pressure from the government to get men into space. Desperate for a break, the NASA team reaches out to an unknown, untapped group of black women (this is at the height of the Civil Rights movement). The women, Dorothy Vaughan (Supporting Actress nominees Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) are incredibly proficient at advanced calculations but, of course, must overcome the racial barriers set for them by the times.
What comes of this is not at all surprising. It is also not as challenging as it should be. The movie seems to soft-peddle their struggle to find equality in a white (and mostly male-dominated) environment. Of the three women, the one who comes off the best is Taraji Henson. She has the bigger part as Katherine Johnson, a shy single mother trying to find a place in an arena where few black women were allowed, and in an arena in which people with her skills were about to be replaced by computers.
Hidden Figures plays much more like The Help then it ebbs close to Fences or Moonlight. By that I mean it takes an extremely soft-touch to a subject that should be far more challenging. It’s not a great movie, its plotting and dialogue feels more like the invention of a screenwriter than something that seems to be welling up from the past. It has some inspiration but you kind of walk out of it feeling as you’ve seen a manufactured product than a portrait of history. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad movie either. Henson is the key here. Her performance resides in the center of the story and she is the emotional fulcrum. Hidden Figures is a safe movie, but not one to dismiss. See Fences and Moonlight first though. You’ll be glad you did.