If you've ever had the pleasure (or displeasure) of meeting me, you might eventually notice that I talk a lot. I type nearly 100 words per minute, and my brain movies even faster. I can talk endlessly about my favorite subjects-turned-obsessions. Growing up, my father affectionately nicknamed me "blabbermouth" (which was better than "Buckethead" or "Lizard Lips") when I began prattling his during his beloved Bears games. It's just a colorful facet of my personality.
And yet, I, the girl who's had lengthy discussions about Mahershala Ali's bone structure, struggled to identify or pinpoint my reaction to Hidden Figures, Fox's powerful biopic about Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), the NASA computer who helped invent the mathematics enabling space landings.
Hidden Figures--not Hidden Fences--deftly weaves humor and romance into the grimness that is watching three brilliant women battle stratospheric circumstances on professional, feminist and racial fronts. Figures' moving spirit rightfully captures the unfailing and cynical humor I recognize in own family and black culture as whole. Henson, who currently plays the audacious Cookie Lyon on Fox's Empire, brings a rare and slightly ill-fitting coquettishness to Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mind who's tapped to calculate math that doesn't even exist. And she can do it in her head. Octavia Spencer, who scored a Golden Globe and SAG nomination, and Janelle Monae round out the ground-breaking squad.
The credits rolled with barriers broken, the earth successfully orbited thrice, and Mary completing her post-graduate work. The audience clapped for the never-been-told journeys of these brave women nearly 60 years later, and I cried.
But they weren't all tears of joy.
I was happy for them, enchanted with the film, and yet somehow I felt triggered. As a black woman born in the '80s, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to walk the path tamed by Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson, and countless known and unknown trailblazing women, like my grandmother and godmother. I never have to know the feeling of drinking from a colored water fountain or fear race riots in school. In fact, in the theater, the white women next to me kept apologizing for the interruption of waitress delivering her mini-cheeseburgers.
But still the moment Katherine adjusted her glasses, gathered her courage and stepped into the bullpen of white men who all gaped at her like she didn’t belong there, I knew how she felt. I have been entering rooms as the only black person for decades.
When the women were stranded on the side of the road and flinched at the sound of sirens in the distance from an approaching police car, I balled my hands into fists and my gut knotted in dread. We all have seen the videos and read the stories of unarmed and innocent black men, women and children being killed by police officers who are later acquitted or never even charged.
And it was hard to watch this joyful dramedy about literal shooting for the stars, and the optimism, unity and patriotism of the space race wrought against today's current times of a widening racial and moral divide and the election of a devious and possibly compromised President-Elect. On-screen, these remarkable women were striving forward when in reality it feels like Lady Liberty is being dragged backward.
It's easy to let the bitter poison the sweetness. I choose to learn from these women and strive ever forward, because in the end, the real Katherine Johnson, at 98, finally got to see her story told. Also, Henson, Spencer and Monae not only starred in a movie, but carried it to a first place box office win for its national release, narrowly defeating Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which has reigned for the three previous weekends, per BoxOfficeMojo.com. Figures will also reign Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, beating out Golden Globes darling, La La Land, as well as new releases The Bye Bye Man, Monster Trucks and Sleepless.
Figures's critical and box office success could definitely help pave the way for more movies featuring black characters, not just biopics about historical figures.
Newly crowned Golden Globe winner for Fences, Viola Davis offered a hard truth about black movies to Variety.com, “If it’s a black movie, at best it’s a biopic because it makes the audience feel comfortable that I am investing in this black person’s humanity, who I already know has made a mark in the world.”
Luckily, the incomparably talented Davis had the chance to take on great fictional characters in roles like Lila and Eve, How To Get Away With Murder, and her most recent turn in Fences, the August Wilson play-turned-film directed by star Denzel Washington. It’s an intimate and crackling drama about a poor black couple in 1950s Pittsburgh. Through Washington's gaze and incendiary performance, the ugly truths about black life before the civil rights movement belies the fact-event coldness of most biopics—the heart-filled and hilarious Hidden Figures not included.
Instead, audiences are invited into the color and flavor and joy of Troy Maxson and his adoring wife Rose. They are regaled by his sense of humor, turn of phrase and grandiose stories. And then very quickly, the realities of their lives slip in: the dysfunctional father-son dynamic, the drinking, the normalcy of Troy's illiteracy, Rose's meekness. It all wilts like a painfully bleak flower, and I was riveted by its revealing layers.
These are the types of films that audiences want to see, too. Stories that delight, inspire and enrage and terrify us with featuring men and women of color. We want the sci-fi movies, the period pieces, and the coming-of-age movies that are generally only made with all white casts.
The tide is turning in the last few for years due to the organized outcries on social media, most notably April Reign's #OscarsSoWhite movement, and also the utter failure of whitewashed movies such as Pan, Gods Of Egypt and Stonewall.
Thanks to the quality and success of Hidden Figures and Fences, Hollywood has no choice but to listen.
Photo Credits: foxmovies.com; variety.com