• Adam Johnson

Civil Rights, Women, and Humanity Win in "Hidden Figures"

"We all get to the peak together or we don't get there at all," says Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner (Thirteen Days, Field of Dreams). So sums up the conflict of Hidden Figures as three colored women at NASA strive to overcome the racial barriers set by society as the administration hurries to move ahead in the Space Race by sending John Glenn into space. Now a nominee for Best Picture and numerous other Academy Awards and repeated box office champion, the film seems to have resonated with general audiences and critics alike.

I think the best part of this film is the chemistry the three main women have. Even though they are split up early on due to new placements in NASA, the relationship is still the heart of the film. Katherie Goble (Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is our heroine, as she becomes the "colored" calculator most near the Space Task Group, run by Costner's Harrison. Filling out the central ensemble are the spunky Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monae, Moonlight), who becomes one of the central engineers, and the long-suffering Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer, The Help) who stays to lead her band of colored computers. Also starring are Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) as an egotistic scientist in the Task Force who starts out with an antagonistic relationship with Goble, Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) as the women's supervisor, and Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) as the widow Goble's prospective suitor. They all come together to deliver great performances and make this untold story real in the eyes of the audience. That said, the main three stand out most, each offering a different spark. Henson harbors Goble's feelings of humility despite repression and her hard-working drive to excel beyond the status quo--not just the expectations some of her white colleagues have for her and her fellow colored women. She has a tremendous and moving monologue halfway through the film, in which she's pushed to her breaking point after being forced to hike across the campus to use the colored restroom multiple times. Monae has great moments of wit as her character strives to get a better education to be eligible for the upwards mobility her white mentor believes she is capable of. And Spencer, perhaps my favorite in the film, delivers again with her maternal charm as she seeks to save the jobs of her fellow computers as IBM's computing machines are being installed in the facility.

I love that this film tells the story it does. I think it is important for us to look at where we have been as a human race to improve and not make such terrible mistakes again. A 1960s tale, racism is huge thing that these women are afflicted with everyday. An intelligent woman like Dorothy Vaughn is unable to check out a book she wants from the library because of her color ("We have other selections in the colored section," says a librarian. "I wasn't interested in any of those," Dorothy replies flatly). Goble is treated as lesser by Parsons's character for a variety of reasons, among those being race. Jackson is held back from higher education because of arbitrary restrictions, for which she confidently appeals to the courts. And Dunst's supervisor character is racist without truly realizing it, taking most of the film to realize her passive racism. Seeing these examples portrayed on screen vividly illustrates societal wrongs that we have and do mistake as societal rights. But at the same time, it is not a "Boo, white people!" movie. Rather, it wants us to admire everyone as a human being and to recognize who a person is rather than how they look. The computers, while valuable, are not seen for as intelligent as they are, something the trio frets about in the opening sequence when their car breaks down and a cop comes by. But that does not take away from the fact that the white men who work for NASA in the Space Task Group are equals with them in intellect, especially Goble. John Glenn (Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!) even makes a conscious choice to acknowledge all the people, white and colored, that are helping do something dangerous like go into space.

Hidden Figures is a well-written, strongly-acted, and often funny motion picture that reminds us of what racism has looked like and how strong black women overcame it in NASA and went on to do tremendous things in their career after the launch this film focuses on. While there is some dramatic tension lost at the end due to the nature of biopics, and some of the sparing CGI is not as crisp as it probably should be (Apollo 13 still looks better, but these shots are passable since they aren't the focus of the film), the human story is strong enough to overcome these few flaws. Besides, as the film ended, I wasn't thinking, "Man, if only that space capsule had been better animated," but rather, "That film deserves to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay," which, believe or not, I actually predicted before the nominations were released. I give the film 4 out of 5 stars. I don't think it is the best of the nominees, but it is still a great film that you should see when you get the chance, at the very least to see a story about strong intelligent people.

Now is probably the best time to discuss its nominations. First: Best Adapted Screenplay. I thought the screenplay was really special. I found it remarkable that the script had very little cursing even in its tensest scenes. I don't usually mind it in films, since I think profanity can have a rhetorical purpose, but this film made me realize that the emotional f-bomb may not always be necessary. Besides that detail, I think the film balanced and interweaved the three stories nicely, but also made every character seem complex and not just "the black hero" or the "white racist oppressor," because these were not reality. It definitely deserves its place, as does Octavia Spencer, my favorite for Best Supporting Actress. Because La La Land was better and I did not expect its nomination, I wouldn't expect it to win, but it definitely belongs in the race for Best Picture.

What did you think of Hidden Figures? Who's your horse in the Oscar race? Whatever you have to say about me and the movies, comment below!

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