Traditionally the period drama sweeps the red carpet at the Academy Awards, training the best picture statuette in its sights with the aid of lavish costumes, detailed sets, a casual approach to factual accuracy and important historical figures stuttering or slaying evil kings. In 2017, however, it’s not easy to argue the case for this sort of crowd-pleaser when the rest of this year’s slate boasts largely gritty, groundbreaking and norm-challenging nominees. But Hidden Figures manages to both stay faithful to the genre’s most enjoyable elements while puncturing the boundaries with a knowing kick of its kitten heel.
Theodore Melfi’s biopic tells the previously untold story of Katherine G Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a trio of female African-American mathematicians working behind the scenes at Nasa in the early 1960s. These human computers helped to mastermind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit during the great space race at a time when, in Virginia, Jim Crow laws were still in effect, there being two entrances, toilets and coffee pots, to separate white and black Americans. Indeed, it’s still shocking to see the “colored” signs that delineate them on screen.
The civil rights movement gently gathers pace in the background, whether it’s flashes of Martin Luther King on television or Dorothy encountering a protest outside the library. But the focus here is on the three friends’ individual battles within the forcefield of racism and sexism. As a result the film feels contemporary, rather than just a timely reminder of the troubling past. Dorothy faces off with Kirsten Dunst’s prim supervisor about equal pay and promotion; Mary wins the right to train as Nasa’s first female black engineer; Katherine negotiates being the only woman in a room full of fusty white male colleagues with unflattering buzz cuts. These are everyday encounters won out by sassy, headstrong leads, proving that Hollywood films centred on black characters can be positive as well as successful (it is the highest grossing of this year’s best picture nominees).