Best Picture Oscar: Hidden Figures [2016]

Hidden Figures is the heart-warming tale of three gifted African American women who work for NASA, and their contributions to the early stages of the space race. It shows their contribution to the first crucial attempt to get an American astronaut into space.

This is the most overtly political film from the Best Picture nominees, because in addition to operating as a piece of entertainment, it operates as a statement of worth for a whole segment of the population by exposing important contributions from women who are wholly unknown precisely because they are black women rather than white men. As a scientist friend of mine also pointed out, this film also attacks the traditional idea of the lone wolf scientific genius off in isolation in favour of a much more realistic collaborative environment where individual credit is a largely meaningless concept. The resultant package is also very fine entertainment: characters you like, doing things that are interesting, with high production values and a cracking pace. The dialogue is sometimes a little obvious, but the actresses are strong enough to get it to work almost all the time.

The big problem with this film is that it’s a paint-by-numbers film about overcoming a challenge, with absolutely rote story beats and subplots. Painting black instead of white still leaves a fundamentally worn-out structure to support the story. It’s therefore a film with absolutely no surprises and no tension that amiably wombles to the perfectly predictable conclusion. Granted that it’s documenting a historical event with well known broad parameters, it still seems impossible that this was the most energetic storytelling mode available. I do almost wonder whether that is a deliberate strategy: by keeping the structure very familiar it makes the shocking and controversial aspect of having black women as the subject easy for the audience to accept – an argument that I think would be borderline contemptuous of both the audience and the subjects of the film.

I think this film has a realistic chance of winning the Academy Award – 25%, say. While this wasn’t the best film over the past year, I would be pretty content with it as a winner because of its basic goodness. If the purpose of Art ™ is to change the world for the better, this is the Best Picture nominee with the best shot at doing that.

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