I believe it was Chris Rock who once said during one of his comedy specials, "Obama didn't win the presidency because he was black. He won because he was black and qualified." That's the clarification that will likely need to be reiterated throughout the remainder of this award season when it comes to several buzzworthy films starring talent of color. HIDDEN FIGURES is one of them. Yes, the Oscars inherently are and have always been so white, though the surplus of amazing films offering diversity this year isn't in response to that conversation. Rather, it affirms what has always been true--great narratives featuring talent of color are simultaneously beautifully acted, relentless, jaw-dropping and, yes, political.
So when a film like HIDDEN FIGURES surfaces, with an inspiring story about three brilliant black women math and science pioneers that defies both the white patriarchal era in which it is set and the the manner in which Hollywood has chosen to remember this time period, and all the accompanying stereotypes, it forces you to take notice and consider its importance beyond any trophies it may deservedly receive.
Taraji P. Henson steps outside her repertoire women with larger than life personalities to play the soft-spoken yet equally determined NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who worked at the space agency from 1953 until 1986. Starting out crunching numbers along with other women in the West Area Computers section (a segregated group consisting of all-African American women who worked on mathematical calculations by hand using tools to improve accuracy in space flight), she eventually worked her way up to become an aerospace technologist whose undeniable genius was called upon to secure calculations for John Glenn's orbit around Earth. calculate the trajectory of Apollo 11 in 1969, and Apollo 13's mission to the moon. All the while, she had to navigate a relentlessly white male space that while it depended on her intelligence, enforced segregated restrooms (the colored restroom was on the other side of the campus), coffee pots, restricted meeting access, and other micro-aggressions in the workplace.
What's most profound about Henson's performance is her ability to portray a woman whose confidence soured when it was challenged by her peers at work, while she navigated her personal life as a single mother of three with a sense of caution and timidity. This dichotomy is indicative of the constant tightrope black women have had to maintain throughout history in order to prove themselves at work yet follow a more traditional, less assertive path outside the office--something that is compounded by both their race and their gender. Coincidentally, it is her brain that attracts Jim, her love interest played by Mahershala Ali, who proves once again that a little goes a long way. His portrayal as Katherine's future husband represents something we rarely seen in other male depictions from this era in that he supports her professional ascent and is confident enough in his manhood (and their relationship) to take a backseat to it. It's refreshing to see.
We see the same thing in Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), who plays NASA mathematician and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson's (Janelle Monae) husband. Like Katherine, Mary held a more than 30-year career at the space agency, beginning as a research mathematician who was later assigned to work with the flight engineers. Though she passed away in 2005, Mary's personality can easily be discerned from her professional accomplishments as well as her mission to advance and highlight other women and minorities in the field. It takes audacity, resilience, charm, as well as intelligence to not only prove your own worth, but also prove that of other women around you and serve as a role model. And Monae rises to this occasion, right from the beginning of the film when Mary finesses her way to she, Katherine, and fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) getting a police escort to work after their car breaks down. Especially for her first stint as an actress this year (after Moonlight a few months ago), Monae's natural flair for performance shines here.
Then there's Spencer, who brings such boss b**ch vibes to Dorothy, who was the first black woman to be promoted as a head of personnel at NACA, the predecessor agency to NASA. Her resume includes computer programming, coding, serving as head of the West Area Computers, and being a champion for other black women in NASA. Oh, by the way, the person who fixes their car in the beginning of the movie? That's Dorothy.
Viola Davis recently said: "The only thing that separates black women from success is opportunity." That is proven tenfold in each of the performances and the story of HIDDEN FIGURES, This drama, which puts black women at its center, is so triumphant, highlighting both the brilliance and lives of three women whose stories have been neglected in history books, and at the same time it elevates the profile of three great actresses who answer a question Hollywood has been avoiding for years: what it means to be black, woman, and brilliant.
Rating: A (***** out of *****)
HIDDEN FIGURES is in select theaters Christmas Day, and everywhere January 6.