Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Hidden Figures

With Hidden Figures you get a two-for-one deal. It tells the story of the forgotten black women who worked on the early days of the space program in the US, just like it's advertised as, but it also goes deeper and explores the damaging nature of the segregation laws that were present in many of the southern US states during the 1960s. Those two parts combine to make an impactful and inspirational story.

In 1961, Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) works at NASA, crunching numbers on whatever project she is assigned to. She is one of a larger group of black female mathematicians that do this job that also includes Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monaé). One day she is hired by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his Space Task Group in order to put a man into space. There is immense pressure to do so from the government, as the Soviets have not only launched their series of satellites, but they have beaten the US in sending a man into space. Since Katherine is a black woman, she has the twin obstacles in proving that she can actually do the job and gain the respect of her colleagues.

After doing some research, I found out that the segregation of the facility in which they work had been basically non-existent since the 1950s. The reason I mention that fact is that it leaves the film in a strange limbo. The movie is very much about being a black person in the 1960s and the majority of society was subject to these Jim Crow laws, but at the same time the film has to be true to experiences of the people being portrayed in the film. I think that director Theodore Melfi balances these two elements really well and that although the segregation laws may not have affected these women in the ways presented in the film, it allows the audience to extrapolate them into the rest of society.

To make these strong women believable and sympathetic, they need to be backed up by strong performances from the female leads. Luckily this movie has plenty of those. Taraji P. Henson transforms into Katherine Goble so completely it's fantastic. She is able to really convey the strength and confidence that the Goble must have had to work in a completely male environment at a time when women were not at all seen as intelligent beings. I am a huge fan of Octavia Spencer and whenever I see something that she's in, I know that she is going to give the best she can and she doesn't disappoint. Especially when it comes to being the comic relief of the three leads, something that she excels at. It seems that to get your film nominated for best picture you need to put Janelle Monaé in it, because she has been in two Oscar nominated films this year (the other being Moonlight). Her character's struggle against segregation is the more amazing of the three as she became the first qualified black female engineer for NASA, which is no small feat. It's also worth noting that if you want to make a movie set during the Cold War, there is an obligation to put Kevin Costner in it.

Hidden Figures is an incredibly inspirational movie. I know that we don't live in a world that has such open discrimination where racism is acceptable (in most countries at least), it is good to be told a story that you can do whatever you want if you work really hard to go out and get it. This is especially true of a world where the pay gap between the genders is so big when it shouldn't be.

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