Hidden Figures Needs to Be Taken Seriously as an Oscar Contender

By  · Published on January 4th, 2017

Important slice of history, polished craftsmanship, crowd-pleasing “genius” narrative, box office…Hidden Figures has it all.

We are on the eve of the first day of voting for Oscar nominations. Set to begin tomorrow and scheduled to continue through Friday the 13th (no, I won’t make a joke), the week-long process will determine this year’s crop of nominees across all 24 categories before they are announced on Tuesday, January 24th. In other words, it’s a good time to make some prescriptive noise about deserving contenders that still seem to need a little push.

If you have eavesdropped on the race thus far even a little, you already know this year’s offerings boil down to three main contenders: Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. This is an astonishing trio of films; arguably the best group of Oscar frontrunners we’ve had in quite sometime. La La Land revives the romantic, dazzling musicals of the olden days and makes them new again with undeniable buoyancy and craftsmanship. It’s a crowd-pleaser and heart-stealer. The masterful Manchester by the Sea intricately paints a soul-crushing portrait of grief, anchored by a stunning performance by Casey Affleck. And the soulful, humanistic Moonlight stands out as an exquisite, quietly moving portrayal of a gay black man’s coming of age tale and life story told in three magnetic chapters, challenging the usual portrayal of black masculinity we are typically shown on screen.

The landscape from here on out doesn’t quite retain the same kind of consensus among Oscar experts. Garth Davis’ tearjerker Lion, Denzel Washington’s remarkable August Wilson adaptation Fences, Denis Villeneuve’s brainy sci-fi Arrival, David Mackenzie’s surprise awards breakout Hell or High Water, Pablo Larrain’s hypnotic character study and psychodrama Jackie, Martin Scorsese’s spiritual epic Silence and Mel Gibson’s towering wartime nail-biter Hacksaw Ridge are among the high-profile contenders predicted across the board with varying degrees of confidence. A bit lower in the prediction ranks is Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures; a handsome, based-on-a-true-story period film about three African American female NASA mathematicians in early 1960s, working in the space program at a crucial time in American history while battling an intersection of toxic sexism and blatant racism. For my money, Hidden Figures is the 2016 film that fits the description of a “classic Oscar movie” the most. Yes, even more so than La La Land; which may be a film industry and Los Angeles love letter appealing to AMPAS by default (as they have proved many times before), but a creatively and thematically risk-taking, fanciful film too, that just might leave some voters cold.

Hidden Figures Will Be An Important Movie

On the other hand, Hidden Figures – an instant winner on many accounts – checks all those “Oscar” boxes firmly in ink. It’s the season’s only feel-good crowd-pleaser other than La La Land. But it’s not escapist in the slightest: it has the courage of tackling its themes around racism and sexism head on (despite Kevin Costner’s memorable scenes, this is not a “white savior” film) and manages to exuberantly connect with the audiences at an honest emotional level. The awards screening I attended back in November concluded with warm applause even though no creative or talent from the film was present in the room. And similar reports are coming in from its ongoing and expanding theatrical run, if my social media feed is any proof. It’s a polished period film with notable art direction and absolutely outstanding costume design (Renee Ehrlich Kalfus’ work here is easily among the year’s best.) It’s set during an important slice of history, uncovering an inspirational, mostly unknown story within it. Co-written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, its exciting, lean script has a wonderful handle on balancing humor with drama. It arrives at a time we desperately need an intersectional feminist film, especially considering the threat the presidential election results currently pose for women and for people of color. Through various infinitely quotable, memorable sequences – some accompanied by Pharell Williams’ catchy Running’ – it makes you genuinely care for its main characters: all three being impressive, likeable and exceptionally smart individuals, doing things all of us will admire and most of us are not smart enough to understand. In other words, it’s a refreshing update to the tired “genius white male” narrative of the Oscar season. And most importantly, it’s carried by three pitch-perfect performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. It’s a little bit Apollo 13, and The Imitation Game, and The King’s Speech, and The Theory of Everything; except, with black women doing the things The Academy absolutely loves, but is used to seeing them done by white men.

The list of reasons why Hidden Figures should be our fourth sure-bet Oscar contender (or rather, should be treated as such by pundits with a little more confidence) goes on and on. It has a whopping 92% on Rotten Tomatoes currently (96% from top critics). And so far, it unsurprisingly seems to be smashing the Box Office. Tom Brueggemann’s Indiewire report notes that in its second week of limited release, Hidden Figures “placed first or second at most of its initial theaters, despite nearly all of them also playing Rogue One and Sing,” and predicts numbers to climb upon its expansion on January 6. It’s got that statistically crucial SAG Ensemble nomination, proving that actors (the most crowded branch of The Academy) are behind it. Let’s also not forget the film was recently honored at the Palm Springs International Film Festival (an annual pre-Oscars playground for strong contenders) and played at the White House. All of this adds up to quite a package.

Now, I am well aware of the fact that the loud advocacy of film writers and Oscar prognosticators can only go so far in terms of pushing a film to Oscar voters and doesn’t necessarily translate into a nomination. At the end of the day, AMPAS voters like what they like. When push comes to shove, they will all sit in front of their ballots and pick and rank their hearts’ desires (perhaps considering some political priorities too) in a way not all that different from a critic making his/her Top 10 list, or a film buff ranking his/her favorites on Letterboxd. You might think I am oversimplifying things, but after all that’s said and done, after all the glitzy parties, (sometimes obnoxious) aggressive marketing and what not, that is all there is to it. I know many would like to think of AMPAS as a voting body with a collective agenda, but in the end, it’s a few thousand people whose individual picks resolve into happy or unfortunate accidents of democracy that at times surely reflect the group’s demographic make-up (well, just like the critics’.) But it is also undeniable that the race does get molded into certain narratives told by prognosticators and film journo. A film more often than not gets deemed as the frontrunner out of festivals, before voting AMPAS members even have a chance to see it. True, Hidden Figures didn’t have a fall festival run (although 20th Century Fox presented exclusive footage from it and hosted a live event with the cast in attendance at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.) But neither did Silence and Fences for comparison.

In one of Hidden Figures’ countless unforgettable scenes, Mary Jackson (Monáe) says if she were a white man, she wouldn’t have to try to become an engineer. She’d already be one. I can’t help but feel the same way about Hidden Figures’ currently perceived and only slowly changing status in the Oscar race. As of today on Gold Derby, only 12 out of 27 experts are predicting Hidden Figures as one of the top 10 possible Best Picture nominees. And among those, only 8 have it in top 7 most likely nominees (note: it is rare to land 10 Best Picture nominees in a system that allows any number between 5 and 10 – it never happened since this system was introduced in 2011.) Well experts, it might be time to update your predictions ever so slightly. Hidden Figures should land a nomination: because it’s made of the stuff Oscars like and because it deserves to. And with a little help from your end, it might get there, too.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.