Hidden Figures and the Art of the Oscar

By: Rose McInerney

Hidden Figures and the Art of the Oscar
February 27, 2017 Rose McInerney

Next year Oscar will turn 90, weighing in at 8.5 pounds and standing 13.5 inches tall. While he’s the golden McDreamy of film artists, he’s due for a facelift. Film has changed so much since Oscar made his debut, but fewer people are tuning in to watch the awards night. Until Oscar undergoes a deep facial cleanse, getting rid of age-old practices that protect gender and racial divides and antiquated status quos, his golden shine will remain tarnished.

Getty Image

Image by Getty Image

Understand Oscar’s physical body isn’t what’s in question. We don’t need to botox or gloss him over with superficial juvederms that retool his “masculine-looking” appearance. At a time when society is moving towards more gender neutral aesthetics and classifications, the focus should be changing what and who Oscar represents.

This last article in my four part series on “Woman as Creator” celebrates the Oscar as a collective film community whose work can change prejudice, stereotypes and demeaning classifications. We all know Hollywood has often been a soapbox for political messaging. Case in point: Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe acceptance speech, where she attacked President Trump’s recent immigration ban. This year’s list of nominated best films are arguably the most diverse offering we’ve seen in years, testifying to a growing collaborative effort by artists to target gender and racial injustices in the world.

Three of the nine nominated films in 2017 Best Film category highlight this point: Fences, Moonlight and Hidden Figures. All of them examine the black experience and address racial and gender problems. However, it’s Hidden Figures that offers the most unique perspective about the power of the collective gender for inspiring change.

In her book, Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly, admits that she always knew she’d share the incredible untold stories of her female protagonists. Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, Shetterly had a chance to meet some of the African American mathematicians who worked as human computers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center, and her father knew some of them when he worked as one of only a small handful of black engineers at Langley. Visits to Langley with her dad and social community gatherings provided a window for Shetterly to see the intellectual capital of these women (black and white) who faced great challenges and overcame racial and gender divides with quiet strength, bravery, and resolve.

HIdden_Figures_Book_CoverShetterly’s personal story (growing up amongst intellectual thinkers) challenges stereotypes, as does her movie plots, which shift the focus away from black poverty and confrontational racial battles. Her fresh perspective underscores the racial and gender problems women experienced in history, but it uses a much grander canopy to highlight these inequities – the intellectual arenas of space travel. Shetterly’s women were pivotal contributors to NASA in a way that, until now, has never been widely publicized.

It’s refreshing to see race take a backseat to the central action of the story – the race to put a man on the moon. By helping NASA develop wind tunnels, the women have a stake in another dramatic race, which is the race to beat the Russians and lay claim to the heavens. The key to unlocking the secrets of flight simulation in the wind tunnel (NASA’s only predictor for success) becomes a wonderful metaphor for leveling the race and gender playing field. And we also see what can happen even in racially charged times like the 50’s and 60’s, when intelligence determines the seat at the table. Can you imagine the influence on present day scientific advancements if we could make innovation and creativity blind to color and gender?

hiddenfigures1

Image by 20th Century Fox

Math doesn’t lie, and the hidden figures in Theodore Melfi’s screenplay don’t either. Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), the brilliant geometry expert, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae) the mathematician, and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), the first black supervisor and one of the first computer programmers, crash through stereotypes about women’s abilities in math and the toughness needed to compete in a man’s world. In Shetterly’s journey back in time, this body of computing women were gifted math talents and patriotic Americans leading rich and meaningful lives.

If Oscar had a facelift he might garner more attention, especially now that history seems to be repeating. It’s not a stretch to say that we have yet to solve our civil rights problem in the U.S. and we are battling again with Russia. As movements for equality build and the economic divide in our country becomes more pronounced, Americans are struggling to find peace amongst very polarized views about our manifest destiny.

But hope lives, like it does in the movies. After two years of the #OscarSoWhite campaign, Hollywood is listening. Last year’s shut out, where Oscar nominations did not include one single African American actor or film director in the motion picture awards, resulted in very publicized and angry reactions from high profile stars like Will Smith.

This helps to explain some of the positive changes in the Academy Awards voting process.
This year’s Academy membership of 683 voters is now 46% female and 41% people of color, and a broader array of more diverse artists casting Oscar votes will reflect a greater cross section of diversity in the film industry. Documentary features like Fire at Sea (about European migration) and I am Not Your Negro (a perspective on race in America) speak to pressing issues about race and immigration policies. As mentioned earlier, the best picture category has a solid number of nominations that also tackle gender and race divides and we may just see an Oscar go to a black film director this year.

Photo by Oscar.org

Photo by Oscar.org

One thing is certain: we will continue to escape to the movies in times of trouble. Hidden Figures gives us lots of reasons to believe art can change lives for the better when good stories are well told. Inspiring people and plots that speak to a diverse audience help us to imagine a better future. If the Academy voting body continues to evolve and include more diverse artists who create and produce content by and about women and people of color, Oscar is going to sparkle. This will certainly brighten the movie-goer experience as performances also tap into a wider spectrum of creativity, innovation, and storytelling.

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