During the week of Donald Trump’s inauguration, I went to the movies four times.
I had my usual reasons for these repeat pilgrimages; it was my last week of winter vacation before going back to school, and Oscar season was fast-approaching, so I wanted to see as many potential nominees as possible while I had the time to spare. And yet, a larger reason still loomed over all the rest: I was frightened and nervous about what January 20th signified, so I hoped to counterbalance those feelings with the empathy-machine that is going to the movie theater.
It’s hard to describe the experience of watching a meaningful film as one of a crowd. I think my favorite home movie approximates the feeling more closely than I’ve ever been able to explain since. In the video, the camera is on me, then an infant, rocking back-and-forth in a baby swing and grinning ear-to-ear at the sight of Barney the Purple Dinosaur on the TV. Meanwhile, my father and my brother, the latter having been about three years old at the time, can be heard conversing in the background. At one point, my brother asks my Dad what going to the movies is like, and he responds with something simple and profound.
“It’s like…a giant living room.” he explains. “And there’s this really big screen, like a TV but it takes up an entire wall. And everyone sits and watches something together.”
When I saw Hidden Figures, I was particularly reminded of my father’s description. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the theater was nearly full, and everyone was just sitting and experiencing this incredible story together. There were even moments during the film when audience members clapped and cheered, which is one of my favorite things that can happen at the movies. It makes you feel more connected to your fellow theatergoers, and cements the value of what you’re watching. After all, a film isn’t a live performance–those actors can’t hear you if you applaud or audibly weep. And yet, sometimes, a movie elicits those very responses from people for no other reason other than the fact that they were moved. That’s how you know that what you’re seeing is nothing short of incredible.
Upon leaving the theater, I found myself thinking more about the Academy Awards, and, inevitably, about the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has been prevalent over the past two years. There is a particularly great article from The Hollywood Reporter about the issue, in which an infographic chronicles all of the African American actors who have won Academy Awards and breaks down the types of roles for which they have been acclaimed. The results are quite crushing; not only is the list of winners strikingly short (only fourteen different people in total), but the roles for which these actors have won are often painfully stereotypical. More often than not, they are for performances as divas and addicts, as domestic help and slaves.
This is not to say that these performances are in any way undeserving of their acclaim, but it still angers me that there is still not a more diverse array of roles available for black talent, or at least, a diverse array of roles positioned at the forefront of the mainstream. Here, one can see that there is not only a lack of representation in the industry overall, but there is also a lack of representation in roles that create new opportunities for African American actors. This remains unacceptable.
Now, one film cannot change all of these issues. But, there is still something incredibly victorious about the success of Hidden Figures. It is a film that centers around the long-ignored achievements of black women as mathematicians, engineers, and rocket scientists during the Space Race, roles that real women had in our nation’s history, and roles that actresses of color deserve to play. It is also a film that has been winning the box office week after week, and therefore is doing something extraordinary within a system that would normally be stacked against it. Plus, there’s the added bonus of its amazing soundtrack by Pharrell Williams, which I highly recommend giving a listen.
Overall, Hidden Figures kicked off my week at the movies with a bang. I’ll be looking forward to seeing it represented at the Oscars, and to its continued success in the box office and beyond.