Sunday, January 15, 2017

Movie Review: "Hidden Figures"

When I went to see Hidden Figures I joked on social media, "Let it be said I am seeing a movie about math." While obviously this movie is about so much more than that, it is truly fantastic to see a movie which focuses on the superior intellect of women, particularly minority women, at a time when contributions from both groups in "serious" fields was hardly valued.

As the space race between Russia and the U.S. heated up, with the Soviets in the lead, NASA was under significant pressure to put a man in space. In addition to the large number of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists they had on staff, NASA relied on "human computers," African-American female mathematicians who were used to perform calculations and analysis—but not be seen or heard unless spoken to. Informally supervised by Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), these women were smarter and faster, but rarely even thought of beyond their abilities to get work done.

One of the smartest of these "computers" was Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson). She is assigned to work with the men calculating how to get a man into space before the Russians did so, and she quickly proves her worth, despite the resentment and prejudices of those around her. But despite the fact that she is asked to calculate figures without access to classified information that would help, as well as the subpar treatment shown to all African-Americans at this time in history, Katherine quickly catches the eye of the NASA Director (Kevin Costner), who begins to rely on Katherine more and more, despite some things he just doesn't understand about her.

Meanwhile, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), is encouraged to apply for one of the engineering positions that has opened up at NASA. She's perfectly qualified (perhaps more so than others), but in an effort to keep African-American women from advancement, the job requirements were changed to include coursework that is only available at segregated schools. She wants to challenge the system, but is discouraged by some (including her husband) from making too much of a fuss.

At the same time, Dorothy is becoming increasingly frustrated by NASA's refusal to formally give her the supervisor position (and pay) for which she has essentially been doing the work for some time, but she sees opportunity in another challenge: mastery of the new mainframe computer that NASA has brought in, which has the potential of replacing all of the "human computers."

As NASA begins preparing for John Glenn's launch into space, Katherine's work becomes ever more crucial, yet she is challenged by the obstacles that keep being put in her path. She wants to attend the meetings where the up-to-the minute data is discussed, and she wants to be viewed as an actual member of the team, not just the typist who is actually doing all of the work. Will her calculations prove correct, and will Glenn make it to space and back safely?

Hidden Figures succeeds on so many levels. It brings to the public eye the achievements of some truly unsung heroes whose work made a huge difference in our world, as schools don't teach about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan when they're talking about the space program, they talk about the astronauts. The film also conveys some strong messages, yet never seems heavy-handed. It also succeeds in creating tension even though you know most of what will happen, but you get so invested in the characters and the story you can't stop yourself from getting nervous.

This film may be a crowd-pleaser, but it's also a tremendously well-acted one. Henson plays a role very different to many of those she's played recently, and walks a line between the deference her character was supposed to show and her frustration that her intelligence wasn't valued the way it should. I really don't understand why she hasn't been more of a factor in the Oscar conversation, since she really has some great moments.

This is the second memorable performance that Monáe has turned in this year (after Moonlight), and this absolutely should land her among the nominees for Best Supporting Actress this year, as her Mary Jackson is fiery, funny, and unabashedly proud of her intellect. Her biggest competition is Spencer, who is always good, but I didn't think her performance rose to the level of Monáe's (mainly because her role wasn't as exciting). Where the Oscars are concerned, however, sometimes the familiar gets in over the more-deserving. (Ironically, when watching the previews before this movie started, Spencer is in five of the movies we saw previews for.)

I really enjoyed this movie, and absolutely expect it to get a Best Picture nomination in a few weeks. It's rare that a movie with female leads does as well at the box office—this weekend marked the film's second consecutive week at #1—and it's even rarer to see a film succeed which features women's intellectual prowess as such a significant factor. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come!

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