By Preston Wilder
Looks like the rest of the world has to wait while America sorts out its race issues. Last year there was ‘Oscars So White’, the irrational outcry lambasting the Oscars for two years of all-white acting nominations even though black actors are over-represented, if anything (at the time they’d won nine Oscars out of 64 awarded since the year 2000, now it’s 11 out of 68; African-Americans make up 12 per cent of the population), and no deserving candidates seemed to have been excluded except the patchy Straight Outta Compton. This year, predictably, they’ve gone to the other extreme. Films with African-American characters were much in evidence at the Oscars – and two of them now open in the same week, even sharing a couple of cast members in Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali.
Hidden Figures, the story of three pioneering black women in NASA in the early 60s, is a collective pat on the back to make everyone feel better. It’s also, at its finest, a film about work that anyone can identify with, irrespective of skin colour; we all want to make something of ourselves, and we all know what it means to work hard and feel unappreciated. The three women are friends, and ride into work together, but in fact they have quite different goals. Mary (Monae) wants to be a NASA engineer, which involves convincing a judge to let her take night classes at an all-white college (it’s a fact of life that, for all our heroines’ drive, their fate rests largely in the hands of powerful white men). Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) is the acting supervisor of NASA’s “coloured group”, and wants a job title to go with her work. And meanwhile Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), more brilliant even than her brilliant colleagues, is what’s called a “computer”, crunching the numbers in the Cold War space race.
What we call a computer doesn’t yet exist, of course – though in fact it does, in the form of a room-sized IBM mainframe that’ll revolutionise NASA if they can only get it through the doors. This is the point of the movie: the computer – and NASA in general – stands for the future, using “math that doesn’t yet exist” to soar into space, while segregation laws are a relic from the past (we can get to the Moon but not the bathroom, notes Katherine ruefully, the “coloured ladies’ room” being half a mile away). Hidden Figures isn’t really a film about the 1960s, it’s a film about the 2010s, the technology-enabled world we live in now where the racism of separate libraries and water fountains seems as irrelevant – at least in theory – as skin colour to a smartphone.
The flipside of that is the movie’s big weakness, viz. that it views the past one-dimensionally and condescendingly. We saw this in The Imitation Game a couple of years ago (a similar film about misunderstood genius, though Hidden Figures is more fun), where Keira Knightley was told to report to the secretarial pool instead of being taken seriously as a code-breaker because she was a woman – just as the white people here stiffen in the presence of their black colleagues, as though they were radioactive. In real life, of course, millions of women took part in Britain’s WW2 effort, not just as secretaries, and an office full of space scientists is likely to have been its own ecosystem: I’m sure there was at least one NASA maths geek who noticed Katherine’s mind instead of her skin colour. In the end, Hidden Figures congratulates audiences in 2017 for living in 2017; then again, why not? The film is a crowd-pleaser, and positive reinforcement may indeed be the best way to change society. It’s no accident that the song at the end includes Obama’s famous slogan “Yes we can”.
The song at the beginning of Moonlight, on the other hand, is called ‘Every Nigger Is a Star’, the presence of that controversial word hinting at the presence of a black director (37-year-old Barry Jenkins) just as the meaning of the title speaks to the film’s gritty uplift. This, of course, is the Best Picture Oscar winner of 2016, the lowest-budget film to have won that award (it cost a mere $1.5 million) and surely one of the artiest. Jenkins works with silence and colour to create a diffident drama, as softly-spoken as its withdrawn, secretly gay hero Chiron, played by different actors in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Alas, poor Chiron is a victim, growing up ghetto with a crack-addled mum and guilt-ridden sexuality. Moonlight is a sensitive film with a very crude worldview; when the little boy is being bullied and opera swells on the soundtrack, the pathos would make Chaplin blush. It does get better in the third act, as our hero grows more complicated (incidentally suggesting that the ‘strong silent’ macho and the closeted gay man come from the same repressed place) and the style becomes more sensual – but Moonlight still looks rather basic next to the complexity of (say) La La Land which, however ‘white’ it may be, works on half-a-dozen different levels.
Ultimately, this is the right film for the right cultural moment: lauded for breaking new ground, analysed in terms of ‘representation’ (whether African-American or LGBT), its Oscar triumph almost a political act. I suspect it’s a case of something – Obama, Iraq, social media – having unloosed a trauma in the national psyche and America trying to work through it, leading to a rash of righteous, nakedly emotional movies like these two. It’s okay, we’ll wait.
DIRECTED BY Barry Jenkins
STARRING Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali
US 2016 111 mins
DIRECTED BY Theodore Melfi
STARRING Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner
US 2016 127 mins