Past the Popcorn: Hidden Figures is the Real Deal for Oscar Consideration

by Jeff Walls

As I pound away at this review, Academy members have already begun filling out their ballots for the Oscar nominations which are to be announced on January 24th.   As usual, the list of expected Best Picture nominees is chock full of heavy-hitting dramas.  It is a good batch of films, to be sure, as it has been a fine year, but what the Academy really needs is a crowd-pleaser, a movie your average moviegoer will want to tune in to the awards show and root for on the night of the ceremony.  There is La La Land, a movie that I love, but as a classic characters-break-into-song-and-dance musical, that movie has already lost a good chunk of the general public who simply aren’t a fan of the genre.  Enter the wild card, Hidden Figures, a PG-rated true story that had the audience at the advance screening cheering and breaking into rousing applause at multiple times throughout the film’s runtime.

Hidden Figures tells the little known true story of three women who played a major role in helping put an American into space.  Katherine Johnson is a physicist and mathematician who is responsible for computing the formulas for the trajectories of the rocket’s takeoffs and landings, Mary Jackson is part of the engineering team responsible for creating a capsule that will not burn up on re-entry, and Dorothy Vaughan acts as a supervisor, even though the color of her skin is preventing her from actually being paid and treated as one.  All three women have been held back due to their sex and their race, but for such an important moment in American history, these are issues that need to be set aside in favor of teamwork and an all-out effort to orbit a man around the Earth.

Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden FiguresThe movie makes sure to emphasize, though, that it is not just necessity that allows these women to break through color and gender barriers.  These women are smart, determined, and hard-working, willing to go above-and-beyond to succeed.  They do not simply accept their current place in the world, but they work to push beyond that to a better place.  If they need more clearance in order to do their job, they are going to make sure they have it.  If they need to take classes at an all-white school in order to advance, they are going to go to court to make it happen.  Your job is endangered by the new IBM computer?  Train yourself to use that computer and make yourself indispensable.  The events of this movie took place at the height of the civil rights movement and just as important to the movement as the marches and the sit-ins were these women who simply did their job to the absolute best of their abilities.

When it boils right down to it, this is exactly the kind of movie that the Academy loves.  It tells the story of one of the landmark moments in American history and does so by dealing with some of the most important social issues in that same history and it does so in both a respectful and entertaining way.  The fact that the movie proves to be a crowd-pleaser of the first order is simply the icing on the cake.

Director Theodore Melfi, in only his second feature following the Bill Murray starrer St. Vincent, crafts a remarkable movie in every detail.  The production design and costumes instantly and convincingly transport the audience back to the early 1960s and yet at the same time we feel like we are watching a movie that is relevant to the issues of today.  And although there are big moments, the movie never feels like it is driving its point home too hard.

The movie is pretty much flawlessly cast.  Taraji P. Henson steps away from her showy role as Cookie Lyon on TV’s Empire to play the quiet, brainy Katherine Johnson, a woman who graduated from college at the age of 18 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97.  Henson is perfect in the role, as are her two co-stars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae.  Spencer again finds herself in a role that seems tailor-made for her.  She commands every scene that she is in as Dorothy Vaughan.  And Monae has proven to be one of the breakout stars of the past year with remarkable performances in both this and another Oscar favorite, Moonlight.  Monae’s Mary Jackson is the flirt of the trio and provides some of the movie’s comic relief, but she can get very serious when she needs to and her scene in front of a judge is one the best moments in the movie and inspired one of those rousing ovations from the audience.

Whether or not Hidden Figures finds itself in the Oscar race is yet to be seen, but there should be little doubt about the movie’s chances to succeed with moviegoers.  It tells a fascinating story wrapped in a package that will appeal to a wide audience.  And in the current political and social climate, the timing of its release could not be more perfect.  We need a movie like this to remind us of how far we have come, how far we still have to go, and how we can get there if we all work together as one.

Hidden Figures is now playing at the Century Federal Way, AMC Southcenter 16, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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