What am I doing? I should be writing about the unfortunate passings of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I started the piece. I need to finish it, and I will; however, I feel compelled to detour, a detour that hopefully leads to a gold plated statuette. You see, for the first time in two years, I am actually looking forward to, or am at least hopeful about, the Oscars, awarded as they are, annually, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
This is not to say that the motion picture industry has been devoid of quality films over the past few years, far from it, but a certain sameness in the Academy’s choices (and maybe even a smug satisfaction) has rendered the proceedings a little, well, tiresome.
That could all change this coming week when Oscar nominations are announced.
Of course, right now, the movie that has many Oscar prognosticators buzzing is La La Land, an original musical romance set in Los Angeles, and more specifically, Hollywood. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who caused quite a stir with 2014’s Whiplash, a Best Picture nominee for which Chazelle earned nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, La La Land just won more Golden Globes than any film in the history of the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Globes’ parent organization. Michael and I saw La La Land on Christmas Day, and we enjoyed it tremendously though more as an exercise in cinematic style than anything else. Oh sure, a live action musical, as opposed to an animated musical or an adaptation of a stage triumph, is a gamble. So there’s that. Plus, the opening LA freeway number is a stunner, and the performances of leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (both Globe winners) are enjoyable. I especially liked the number in which they dance while wearing matching shoes, Oxfords. The problem for this viewer is that while, again, I was dazzled by the onscreen action, I never kidded myself that I was watching a breakthrough. Indeed, I felt like I was reliving a lifetime of moviegoing pleasures, among them (in no particular order): 500 Days of Summer, Shopgirl, Annie Hall, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Francis Coppola’s indifferently received quasi-musical, One from the Heart–Michael, btw, also observed multiple similarities to the Coppola film. Additionally, as visually sumptuous as La La Land is, I’m not certain that it has anything on either Hail, Caesar! or Woody Allen’s underrated Cafe Society in that regard–and they are also both set in Hollywood.
I’m still a bit behind in my moviegoing, so, no, I have not yet seen Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, but they’re on my list. I especially want to see the former. On the other hand, I have seen Fences, Jackie, and a few others. Also, until recently my favorite movie of 2016 was actually Zootopia. Don’t laugh. There’s a reason why it nabbed Golden Globe and Critics Choice honors, among others, over the more heavily hyped Moana–and even snagged a nod over the hugely popular Finding Dory.
The movie most on my mind right now is Hidden Figures, which aims its lens on the contributions of women of color to the U.S. space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the U.S. was in a tight race with the U.S.S.R. for space exploration bragging rights. While these women, originally known somewhat derisively as “West Area Computers” due to the space agency’s segregated campus, numbered into the hundreds, the movie, and to a lesser degree the book by Margot Lee Shetterly upon which it is based, narrows its focus to three particularly compelling individuals: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
I’m pulling for Hidden Figures to conquer the Oscars for two reasons. First, it’s movie I don’t feel like I’ve already seen a dozen or more times. Sure, we’ve seen The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995), fine wonderful pictures and major Oscar contenders, but those stories focused on men, white men, and traded in nostalgia for a truly exciting chapter in American history without much scrutiny regarding the concurrent struggle for civil rights–and right there in the heart of NASA and its predecessor, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). These women, highly skilled math and science professionals, worked just as hard (maybe even harder) behind the scenes as the men on the front lines who elicited fawning admiration, headlines, and parades. Oh sure, it could be argued that Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and all the rest were simply doing their jobs, but they were doing them under extraordinary circumstances, fighting in their own way for dignity and equality in the workplace–and often under amplified scrutiny. In that regard, Hidden Figures is a potent reminder that we need not ever be too complacent about progress because it doesn’t come easily and can be quite deceptive, that is, from the outside looking in, as opposed to the reverse.
The second reason I’m rooting for Hidden Figures is because it does something that used to be taken quite for granted at Oscar time. Specifically, it bridges the gap between more big budget, action oriented hits that studios crank out and the s0-called smaller films that have become Academy faves as of late, no doubt contributing to the declining ratings of the annual Academy telecast, and, I think, its credibility. In its first two weekends’ worth of wide release (that’s two weekends not two weeks), Hidden Figures has sold more tickets, drawn more moviegoers, than either of the last two Best Picture winners, Spotlight (2015) and Birdman (2014) in their entire domestic runs. That would be $54 million (and counting) for Hidden Figures compared to 45 mil and 42 mil, respectively. At this rate, I think Hidden Figures can easily reach the 100 million mark. [As of this writing, now three weekends into wide release, it has earned $84 million at the box office, not too far behind La La Land at 89 mill.] While I would never argue that a movie’s popularity serves as an infallible indicator of its lasting merits, as plenty of cheesy flicks have also performed very well at the box-office, I also know that once upon a time the Academy responded readily to movies that scored as both commercial and artistic triumphs. Please don’t make me go all the way back to 1939 to list such victors, but I can point to such fairly recent Academy honorees as Argo (2012) and The King’s Speech (2010) as examples that seemed to capture the public’s imagination, earning big bucks (100+ million) while also currying favor among Academy members. Wedged in between those two on Oscar’s honor roll is the French produced curio The Artist, a pastiche about the passing of Hollywood’s silent film era. It grossed approximately 45 million in the States.
Oh, and that’s another point worth making. What do The Artist, Argo, and Birdman all have in common? They are all movies essentially about movies, moviemaking, and movie makers. Even fact-based Argo. Though it concerns itself with the Iranian hostage crisis–and those stranded in Iran as a result–Ben Affleck’s Best Picture winner still does so within the framework of Hollywood trappings–as a front for a rescue operation. Enough, already. La La Land essentially features more of the same, that is, movie love at its most infatuated. Is it a wonder why, say, sometimes, Hollywood’s biggest and brightest celebrities are often accused of being, oh, I don’t know, smug and out of step with less glitzy, less privileged, Americans? Hard to argue against that when three of the past five Best Picture winners are movies about movies. Hidden Figures succeeds as a powerful antidote to that notion. Btw, once upon a time, movies about movies were not as embraced by the Academy as they are now, witness the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950), nominated for 11 Oscars while winning 3, none in the 6 major categories, and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), nominated for only two of the fabled statuettes, taking home neither. Even Robert Altman’s vaunted The Player went 0 for 3.
Hidden Figures features strong performances by two acclaimed actresses, Taraji P. Henson, a previous Oscar nominee for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as a Globe winner and Emmy nominee for her singular portrayal of “Cookie Lyon” in Empire; and Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for 2011’s hugely popular The Help. The film also features singer Janelle Monáe in one of her two heralded 2016 film appearances, the other being Moonlight. Spencer, well on her way to being a national treasure due to her formidable talent, likable persona, and eye for picking material, appears poised for her second Oscar race in the Best Supporting Actress category. She’s done pretty well this far into the awards season, garnering nominations for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild award, among others. Monáe, the relative novice, has also earned awards consideration for her work in this film and the aforementioned Moonlight, including a Critics’ Choice nod.
My focus today is directed toward Henson. Her character emerges as the true lead in the film, a highly skilled mathematician, a former child prodigy, with an emphasis in analytic geometry, whose calculations exceed even the newfangled computer from IBM. We know for a fact, as depicted in the film, that no less than John Glenn asserted that he didn’t want to board his Mercury space vehicle without Johnson (“the girl”) verifying his coordinates first. That’s the truth. How often do we get to see a woman of this caliber in movies, and under these circumstances? Oh, sure, Henson has a great moment when she has had her fill of office politics in the Jim Crow era, and lashes out accordingly. Impressive enough, but what about everything else? Her character is simply in awe of math in general, numbers, and theory. And she expresses this frequently, silently, when she steps up to a chalk board to work her way through a complicated equation. Look at her face, her eyes. Additionally, notice how she moves, with a purpose, yes, but also as a woman who has learned her status in an environment so artlessly dominated by white men. In other words, she’s always aware of her every move, walking a very fine line in the name of self-preservation at almost all times. Pay attention.
So far, Henson has not attracted as much awards brouhaha as Spencer, or not as much from the high profile groups that function as strong Oscar indicators, and that genuinely surprises me. Here’s what we know. Women of color, specifically black women, are among the most underserved, underrepresented demographic in mainstream Hollywood films. Black actresses simply do not get the same number of opportunities as white actresses. That, for better or worse (mostly worse), is a given; therefore, black actresses are not nominated for Oscars as frequently as are their white counterparts. Of course, we know that this problem extends to women of color in general, but I’m trying to make a specific point about black actresses…for now (TV, as we’re seeing with Henson, Kerry Washington [two Emm noms for Scandal], Viola Davis [an Emmy and SAG winner for How to Get Away with Murder], and the amazing Regina King [now a two time Emmy winner for the American Crime anthology series] along with Uzo Aduba [two Emmy awards–in two categories–for Orange is the New Black and Tracee Ellis Ross [a Golden Globe for Black-ish] outpaces film by obvious leaps and bounds.) After all, how many black Best Actress nominees have there been since Halle Berry’s historic win fifteen years ago? Exactly three: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious, 2009), Viola Davis (The Help, 2011), and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012), for a whopping total of 10 in the Academy’s approximately 90 years of existence. Not that Tyler Perry doesn’t do his part to develop challenging roles for actresses, per Henson in I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Meanwhile, progress is more evident among supporting players as 4 of the past 10 winners have been black actresses: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls, 2006), Mo’Nique (Precious, 2009), the aforementioned Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013); moreover, when Henson was in the race for Benjamin Button, she competed in her category against a knockout Davis in Doubt. Of course, without disparaging the achievements of these most excellent actresses, it’s still a little discouraging to know that when award worthy roles for black actresses come along, they are frequently less than progressive: welfare moms, maids, and slaves, for example.
Do I think that Henson should be nominated–or, better, win–just for playing a successful black woman who isn’t a domestic? Gosh, no. But as a moviegoer, I appreciate it when a film or a performance shows me something I’ve never seen or takes me somewhere I’ve never been, so right now Henson’s performance feels fresh and exciting–more exciting than, say, watching Natalie Portman portray Jackie Kennedy, even portraying Jackie Kennedy in a way that many of the seemingly endless TV movies about her can hardly compare…but so what? Plus, I think it’s high time that both the Academy’s and mainstream Hollywood’s choices begin looking like the rest of America.
Who knows? Maybe Henson will find herself in a race that includes, besides obvious contenders Stone (she of the wispy singing voice) and Portman, Ruth Negga in Loving, based on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that effectively put an end to laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and Viola Davis, currently being touted as a potential Best Supporting Actress nominee for reprising her Tony winning role as Denzel Washington’s put upon wife in Fences. For my money, Davis is clearly a leading rather than supporting contender, but Paramount–with the actress’ apparent consent–thinks otherwise; however, it’s the voters, not studio marketing gurus, who will make that final determination. This could lead to an interesting turn. But I digress.
Nominations are literally around the corner, and Hidden Figures, by virtue of its Producers Guild and SAG Best Ensemble nominations seems well poised to snag a Best Picture nomination. Director Theodore Melfi might not be as fortunate EXCEPT that he has snagged nominations in various races for co-adapting the screenplay, a good sign. Plus, as noted, Spencer looks good right about now as well. If nominations materialize in these three categories, I’ll be pleased. If Henson lands a nomination as well, I’ll be over the moon with gratitude.
Thanks for your consideration…
All grosses reported via Box Office Mojo – http://www.boxofficemojo.com/
Madamenoire.com – http://madamenoire.com/712204/hidden-figures/
89.3 KPCC, Southern California Public Radio – http://www.scpr.org/news/2017/01/13/68124/hidden-figures-star-octavia-spencer-hosts-free-scr/