Thursday, February 16, 2017

Go Figures

My journey through this year's Oscar contenders for Best Picture continued recently with a movie I would have seen with or without the nomination: Hidden Figures. This film about the early days of the U.S. space program actually offers a fresh new look at this well chronicled history, by focusing on a previously (and sadly) overlooked aspect of it -- the contribution of women of color in the race for space.

I'm a sucker for entertainment about the space race. Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies, I'm quite fond of The Right Stuff, and I loved the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. I especially enjoy a story that tells me something about the history of space flight that I didn't know -- and that doesn't happen all that often. In short, I was predisposed to like this movie.

Add to all that the compelling civil rights tale being told here. The three protagonists of this movie are victims twice over; we see them discriminated against both for their race and their gender. (One of the three is an underdog in yet another way, as her job is at risk of elimination with the advent of computers.) It's a powerful example: just how brilliant these three women were, how they were in a field that routinely recognized and rewarded such brilliance, and yet they still struggled to rise to the top.

It's made even easier to root for these women thanks to the winning performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle MonĂ¡e. Henson is the nominal lead, but all three have their own story lines, and the trio together has a number of great scenes. The film's ensemble is further fleshed out by heroes (Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali) and heels (Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons), but that core triad remains the focus throughout.

The resulting concoction is sometimes dramatic and sometimes funny. It provokes thrills of triumph and makes you bristle at injustice. Some would argue the film is formulaic -- but if so, the formula is executed very well. I give Hidden Figures an A-. It's my favorite so far of the Oscar contenders, and it even earns a spot on my Top 10 Movies of 2016.

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