Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Movie with Abe: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Released December 25, 2016

A frequent feature of historical films is to reveal or expose an unknown element related to a far more publicly known event. America’s space race was full of enterprising scientific advancements and a desire to succeed and beat Russia there driven by a fear and hatred of communism. What isn’t written and celebrated nearly as much is the incredible contribution by three African-American women whose role is cleverly summed up by this film’s layered title, providing crucial intellectual support without which NASA’s accomplishments surely would not have been possible.

First introduced when their car breaks down on their way to work in 1960s Virginia, three extremely intelligent women whose skin color and gender makes others doubt their potential are this film’s protagonists. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician whose talent gets her brought into the all-white, all-male group calculating trajectories for the first American manned mission into space, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) works on the spacecraft itself, yearning to become an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor to the West Area Computers group, which consists of all the African-American women who work for NASA, but is unable to officially hold the position and must report to a condescending white woman (Kirsten Dunst). All three women display tremendous ability, and this lighthearted film gives them all the chance to shine.

While much of the segregation-inspired racism that occurs throughout this film is far from funny, this film treats it relatively flippantly, creating opportunities for triumphant speeches and moments for the underappreciated to humiliate their dominant colleagues by demonstrating their true value. That approach makes this PG-rated film far more enjoyable than it might have been, but also calls into question its historical veracity. If nothing else, it serves as an entertaining spotlight of unexpected – and unpublicized – ingenuity on the part of three women way ahead of their time who weren’t going to let society hold them back.

Henson won a Golden Globe last year for chewing scenery on an hourly basis on “Empire,” and here she has a less showy role that still allows her to get in a few good jabs at those who look down at her while making the math seem mostly manageable rather than totally unperceivable given the high level of science and mathematics at play. Spencer, who won an Oscar for stealing scenes in “The Help,” is once again drawing similar awards attention for a role that isn’t as meaty but does give her the opportunity to have some fun and do well. Singer-actress Monae, on the other hand, fully commands all of her scenes and should earn any best-in-show commendations for her fantastically-delivered zingers. The film’s SAG nomination for Best Ensemble should really be reserved for its main three players rather than the white actors who contribute less to the story, but that’s the whole point of this female, African-American-driven crowdpleaser which is easy to digest and fun to watch.


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