If you’ve been paying attention to the buzz around the Best Picture category at this year’s Academy Awards, you’ll know that it’s a safe bet to call La La Land the front-runner, with Moonlight carrying the best odds for a surprise upset. But lately, another film has snuck into the conversation: Hidden Figures.
The nominees are a diverse batch of films that offer master-classes in the many unique strengths of cinema: from brilliant social commentary to idyllic escapism. Among the bunch, one film stands out to me as particularly crucial – especially at this moment in history.
My first reaction to Hidden Figures was this: it may not be my favourite movie of the year, but it was one of the most enjoyable, and certainly among the most important.
Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African-American female mathematicians working at NASA in the early 1960s. What’s perhaps most remarkable is that a tale as significant as this one has been so rarely told. Based on a novel of the same name, Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson.
The subjects tackled here – racism, gender inequality, and the human experience at large – are massive in scope, but the film carries itself so effortlessly and it never feels weighty. Instead, it is equal parts funny, inspiring, and humbling.
Like any great director, Hidden Figures’ Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) knows that it’s more effective to show than to tell – there’s minimal exposition here. Instead, Melfi throws the audience right into the lives of these three intelligent, capable, and persevering women. He spends equal time exploring their remarkable talents as he does shedding a light on the harsh conditions of the time that threaten to suppress their brilliance. We feel all of their defeats like punches to the gut, and we cheer alongside their massive victories.
The film comes at a significant time for a multitude of reasons. Just last year we saw the emergence of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash, which resulted in the Academy “commit[ing]” to doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020. It also comes at a time when, at the beginning of Black History Month, the President of the Unites States struggled to define Fredrick Douglass’ importance to the history of America. Now more than ever it’s critical that these stories are being told – stories about strong and resilient black men and women who broke down barriers for generations to come.
I’ve heard people say lately that they’re suffering a political fatigue – that the American election, and subsequent circus, has left people searching for more optimistic escapist fair. La La Land fits that bill, and what’s surprising is that Hidden Figures does too. Despite its deeply affecting story, Melfi ensures that his film is always a pure pleasure to watch. Like La La Land, I felt as though I was smiling from start to finish. Even more impressively, without ever feeling like I was being lectured, Hidden Figures allowed me to leave the theatre feeling like I learned something valuable.
The entire cast is phenomenal, but Taraji P. Henson truly shines here – Katherine’s journey is the soul of the film, and Henson never misses a beat. She’s playing the polar opposite of her TV persona Cookie Lyon (from FOX’s “Empire”), and it’s a pity that she didn’t make the cut in the Lead Actress category at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Still, it was a thrill to see the entire cast accept the award for Outstanding Performance By a Cast in a Motion Picture from the Screen Actors Guild.
At a time when diverse stories and actors are finally beginning to be duly recognized in mainstream film, even as the leader of the free world shows a glaring ignorance towards the significant black history of America, it’s comforting to see a film like Hidden Figures being embraced by critics and audiences alike.
“This film is about unity,” Taraji said during her acceptance speech at the SAG awards last month. “The shoulders of the women we stand on are American heroes – without them, we would not know how to reach the stars. These women did not complain about their problems, their circumstances … they focused on solutions.”
Here’s to cinema continuing to give a voice to the stories that truly need to be told, about the characters that history has forgotten – or ignored.
Maximilian Conte (@mconte22) keeps Eye Myth contemporary. He is a freelance writer with a background in marketing and a passion for film and television. As a staff writer for SpoilerTV, he has reported on conversations with Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, JJ Abrams, Angela Bassett, and several other respected actors and producers.