Hidden Figures – A Hollow Gesture

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Hidden Figures is a film that skated into the Best Picture category on the strength of its subject matter alone. In the wake of the Oscars So White controversy last year, it would have been the height of idiocy for the Academy not to throw a few nominations at it. After all, its central theme is overcoming racial prejudice. It seems that if black films want to be recognized all they have to do is give the old white men in the Academy a good dose of ethnic guilt. This doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t deserve its nominations, but it does mean that it is unlikely to win. Hidden Figures is competently made, has likable characters, and boasts an interesting story made all the more engaging by its true nature, but it lacks creativity and retreads familiar thematic material.

Set at NASA in 1961, Hidden Figures tells the true story of the incredible professional success of three black women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Facing discrimination, racist supervisors, and segregated work environments, these three women endeavor tirelessly to excel in their respective fields.

The protagonist, Johnson is a demure woman and math protege who becomes attached to the project to send an American astronaut into space. She is often denied access to necessary information and her racist supervisor takes credit for her work. Vaughan, an ambitious problem solver and natural leader, supervises an entire team of black female computers, yet is denied the position and salary of a supervisor. Jackson, sassy and fiery, battles in the court system to attend a segregated school so that she might become NASA’s first black engineer.

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Though all of our leads experience more or less the same arc beat for beat, the characters are distinct and likable enough that each third of the story has its own flavor. Seeing the same narrative unfold three times in the same film never becomes dull because we are equally invested in each woman’s struggle. Plus, thanks to some careful tweaking of history, the film’s high note of sending a man into space nicely corresponds with everyone’s long overdue professional success. It’s a fascinating and uplifting story about the strength of the human spirit. Too bad its one we’ve seen before.

The theme of racial injustice has been explored many times, and frankly, preceding films have done a better job. Films like Selma and 12 Years a Slave (both Best Picture nominees, one a winner) dealt with this same subject matter, but did it with far more emotional impact. Of course, it can be argued that the stories being told by these types of predecessors were harsher ones from more brutal times, and therefore hit harder because they had more teeth, but that does not invalidate the feelings of the audience. The fact is that Hidden Figures feels familiar, and its narrative, engaging as it is, doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as its predecessors, or even its current competition. Fences for instance uses racial tensions as a backdrop to tell an interpersonal drama, and is far more effective for it.

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Furthermore, when one considers the technical elements of the film, Hidden Figures is stylistically bland. Camerawork, production design, score…all of it is competent, but none of it is outstanding or particularly creative. The focus is simply to convey the narrative efficiently since that bears the full burden of the audience’s engagement.

It is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, yet the dialogue isn’t particularly memorable, nor is the film structurally unique. Quite the opposite in fact. Considering that Arrival, with its ring composition narrative, is also nominated, Hidden Figures has little hope in this category.

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In terms of performances, the strongest one in the film is without a doubt our lead actress, Taraji P. Henson, yet she is snubbed for Best Actress. Octavia Spencer is instead nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and while she certainly does a good job, her performance, much like the stylistic elements, is merely competent. In fact, of the three leads, she is arguably the most forgettable. Viola Davis’ performance in Fences blows Spencer our of the water. Unless we get another Mark Rylance upset, Spencer will not be getting a statue.

All of this leaves Hidden Figures in a bit of an odd position at this year’s Academy Awards. The film is certainly good, but it is not exemplary. In the wake of last year’s controversy, its nomination feels almost like a hollow gesture. It has a great, inspirational story, but as a film it is very safe, familiar, and standard. This year the competition is fierce and Hidden Figures simply doesn’t have enough going for it to truly be in the running.

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