It’s no big secret that studios often greenlight a project not because they think the final result will be especially extraordinary or because it will be a big box office draw, but because it will play into the sensibilities of Academy Awards voters, resulting in golden trophies and the prestige that comes with them. This is what is colloquially known as Oscar bait, and there are a few things that work well in garnering Academy attention: Dramatizations of true stories, tales of achievement over adversity, and historical pastiches set within or just before voters’ lifetimes are a few that work well and signal to both audiences and voters that a film is a “prestige” picture primed “For Your Consideration.” This has backfired to some extent in recent years, as the predominantly white base of Academy voters has largely ignored the achievements of people of color in film. Enter Hidden Figures, a true story historical pastiche about a group of Black women who faced the adversity of their times and overcame it. Oh yeah, this is Oscar bait, but I would argue that it is of the best kind.
Set in the early 1960s, an era that saw both the dawn of the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement, Hidden Figures follows the experiences of three computers—that is, human beings in charge of mathematical calculations—as they work hard for recognition at NASA, an institution that neither knows how to recognize achievement from women or Black people. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) seeks to become an engineer but must fight to attend night classes at a segregated school in order to do so. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is a makeshift supervisor who sees her computing pool’s coming obsolescence in the introduction of the IBM computer, so she endeavors to teach herself and her pool how to operate the complex machine. The majority focus, though, is on Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson, gunning hard for that Best Lead Actress award), a remarkably skilled computer whose understanding of complex geometry surpasses her white counterparts but receives little to no recognition.
The performances are universally great, including supporting turns from Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons as bosses who either don’t fully grasp the extent of their own prejudices or don’t see anything wrong with treating these Black women as lesser beings. This is a film that trades heavily on demonstrating that prejudice is not only about being mean to people or expressing hatred, but it is rooted in an idea that one person is inherently better than another based on entirely superficial differences. If nothing else, this film is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for communities familiar with casual oppression, as these women fight for what deserves to be theirs against a system that unjustly denies it to them.
That said, it’s worth pointing out that Hidden Figures still falls victim to a common screenwriting issue of Oscar bait: self-awareness. It isn’t so pervasive as to be entirely distracting, but there are numerous times where characters reference the year or the changing times or their specific place, alluding to the idea that things won’t always be this way and that one day oppressed minorities will be given their due. This kind of writing implies a knowledge of the future that these characters shouldn’t have, and it can’t be chalked up to mere optimism, particularly because these characters aren’t necessarily optimistic about the success of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s clumsy place-setting that by no means breaks the movie, but serves as a little too much of a wink and a nod to the Academy. “See? This is what you like, right? And now you don’t have to feel so racist because this movie is about Black people!”
Still, despite the obvious motives behind its production, Hidden Figures is a very entertaining film that, while not revolutionary by any means, effectively delivers its moralism through a collection of fantastic performances. Don’t be surprised if this becomes a staple of Black History Month screenings in high school classrooms in years to come, and as one of the very few representations of Black women as empowered, inspirational protagonists on film, it deserves to be there.