For My Consideration: Florence Foster Jenkins and Hidden Figures

The nominations for the 89th Academy Awards were announced this Tuesday and while it wreaked havoc with my viewing list/schedule it’s nice to now have the final list to give more direction in what movies to watch. Also, there are a few Oscar deals that I’ve found out about so my poor put-upon wallet will also get a much-needed break. I was really excited by the nominees and mostly satisfied with the films getting recognition, though truthfully, the number of nominations for La La Land annoyed me. Though I have yet to see the film,  La La Land to me seems reminiscent of other Oscar favorites that were full of gimmicks. Movies like The Artist, The Revenant, and Crash all have one overarching gimmick that, while interesting and well done, only serves to distract from the film’s overall mediocrity. Again, I haven’t seen the movie yet. The films I did see this week were Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures and Florence Foster Jenkins nominated for Best Actress Meryl Streep, obviously. Each film had highlights but both really shine through the performances of their main cast.

Florence Foster Jenkins

The true story of a wealthy heiress in the early 1900s, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is a great patron of the arts and has a special love for operatic music though she has no talent. She suffers from syphilis contracted from her first husband, and because of that her second husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a failed actor, lives in a separate apartment (which she pays for) and has a mistress. It is unclear whether St. Clair is truly in love with Florence or taking advantage of her wealth and position. Florence decides she wants to sing again and puts on a concert and St. Clair tries to dissuade her, citing her health issues, but she is determined. No one has the heart to tell her that her voice is terrible and that she’ll never be a great Opera singer. Instead, they’re blinded by her wealth, influence, generosity, and genuine passion. Mr. Bayfield and her piano her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory) set about putting on an elaborate farce of a concert. Giving tickets to the hearing impaired or those hoping to become acquainted with Florence because of her wealth. They even go so far to bribe members of the press to write glowing reviews of her terrible performance.

Soon you find out that this is all done out of a real sense of love and affection for Florence. While naive and untalented, Florence as a whole is a sweet and genuine person who is truly loved. St. Clair truly does care and love Florence and goes through the charade in order to ensure her happiness and to spare her from hurtful and harmful critique and ridicule.  I couldn’t help thinking of the story in the context of the other film I saw this week Hidden Figures. While people bent over backward to give acclaim to a rich, influential person who did not deserve these accolades, Hidden Figures tells the story of three women who succeeded with no help or concessions from anyone. 

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures tells the mostly unknown story of the Black women influential in NASA’s successful space program in the 1960s. The story centers around mathematician Katherine Goble-Johnson, engineer Mary Jackson, and informal supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. In the middle of a stressful arms race with Russia, gifted mathematician Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is assigned as a Computer to the Space Task Force headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). As the first and only African American in the task force she faces many overt and covert instances of racism that make it difficult to do her job. Not only facing these hardships, she has to live up to impossible standards – this is best illustrated by her 30 minute run to go to the colored bathroom on the opposite side of NASA’s campus, and then being judged by her superiors for never being at her desk. However, her brilliance shines through and becomes instrumental in the successful launch of the Friendship 7, the first American to orbit the Earth.

While Katherine is the main character, we also meet Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), also apart of the Colored women’s West Area Computing Section and who was a favorite among engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, who encouraged her to become an engineer though the only schools to offer the Masters necessary were segregated. Mary is outspoken and gregarious but hesitant to put herself in a position that she believes will only lead to further disappointment. Eventually, she petitions the court and is allowed to take the courses required to become NASA’s first black female engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has been doing the work of a supervisor for the West Area Computing Section of NASA but her white counterpart, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), continues to make excuses for not promoting her. In order to protect her job security, she decides to teach herself and the other women in her department to code, as NASA has made a large investment into an IBM computer. 

Beyond dealing with racism and the open hostility of fellow female supervisors, these women also have to deal with the racism and sexism of their male-dominated workplace. This film is a must-see for anyone who doesn’t understand the true need for intersectional feminism. While watching Hidden Figures, I couldn’t help but think of all of the ways society failed Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and all other the unnamed black women in history and today. Imagine if they had access to the best schools, jobs, support systems. How far could their potential have truly reached? The illogical system of racism is just another impediment to the ideals of “American exceptionalism,” since it precludes non-white males from becoming truly exceptional. This film is a reminder of the continuing wage and opportunity gap women of color face and how this reinforces the idea of the ‘exceptional negro’. What I most appreciated about this film was not showing only their triumphs but all of the work needed to make those triumphs possible.