Yet another Oscar Best Picture contender and yet another film that starts with the phrase 'based on true events' this is Hidden Figures. A film that offers much to empower and calls us to check our privileges at the door of the cinema. Do all the encouraging factors though add up to a true contender for Best Picture?
As the United States raced against Russia to put a man in space, NASA found untapped talent in a group of African-American female mathematicians that served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history. Based on the unbelievably true life stories of three of these women, known as "human computers"', we follow these women as they quickly rise through the ranks of NASA alongside many of history's greatest minds specifically tasked with calculating the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return. Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson transcend gender, race, and professional lines while their brilliance and desire to dream big, beyond anything ever accomplished before by the human race, firmly cemented them in U.S. history as true American heroes.
From the opening scene of this film we realise how far these women will have to travel. Standing at the roadside beside their broken down car, visually citing their inability to progress, they encounter local Virginian law enforcement and quickly get their manners in order. This is not a time for answering back or speaking without being spoken to. Subsequently they receive a police escort, given the importance of their job, despite the officers reservations that women and more strangely black women are helping in the space race.
Discrimination is rife throughout the film and this coloured bathrooms, coloured coffee and the backseat of buses all make their presence felt and that's before the gender issue raises its head.
When Mary Jackson shows interest in going the engineering programme she is told that, 'no woman' has ever joined the program. Rather than dyer this only serves to galvanise Johnson played with powerful sass by Janelle Monáe. When the goal posts are shifted even further as classes are offered in a segregated high schools must take her case to court, face a white judge and stand alone against the regime.
This is certainly a film to make you consider how we ever lived this way. The rationale for these women working in a separate wing of government buildings, with separate facilities is a staggering cry of injustice, particularly given their ultimate roll in the cause. This is of course acknowledged by significant moments such as the removal of coloured bathrooms and the rallying cry of Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who declares that they can't all get to their goal without going together.
Taraji P. Henson puts in a great performance as Katherine Johnson the brilliant mathematician who joins the white shirted office of peers only to be handed a trash can requiring empty. Her awkwardness is endearing and her moments of success have the audience fist pumping as we go.
If there are any downsides to the film it may be the Pharell Williams soundtrack that accompanies it. While incredibly toe tapping and referential to events it's depicting the choice to modernise the music is jarring. Sequences with Monåe running to the coloured bathroom have this almost comedic toned tune laced over what is intended to be another moment of injustice, not a 3 minute break of toe tapping musicality. Undoubtedly there could have been better selections made form the era that would have had the same relevance. This however is a minor quibble and should not deflect from what is a very powerful, inspirational film.
Hidden Figures is an Oscar contender but ultimately, given the competition, I'm not sure if it will walk away with any statuettes. It is a film filled with heart, soul and a spirit of tenacity in the face of all manner of discrimination.
This is a film that restores faith in barriers only existing to be overcome and that if we all do our part anything is possible. As a Dad to two young girls I can't wait for them to see this film and dream of what they can become.
Hidden Figures is on general release from 17th February 2017.
Thanks to MovieHouse for screening access.