Recently the female driven biopic Hidden Figures has been stacking up awards and nominations. Two weeks ago, it was nominated for three Oscars, including best picture, and last week it won best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild awards. Most of the press surrounding the film suggests that the reason the film is receiving such high praise is largely because of the Oscars trying to prove they are not racist after last years nominations were lacking in diversity, yet attributing the film’s success to politics deprives the filmmakers of much needed praise. After seeing the film this past weekend, it is apparent that the key to the film’s success has come from its screenplays ability to avoid common pitfalls of biopics and instead allow the talented cast and crew the room to show the audience why the story of the characters in the film needs to be told today.
Before we dive into the common mistakes that occur at the story level for biopics, it is important to observe the first mistake Hidden Figures hurdled that hinder dramatic films in any genre. When films are made, the intentions of the filmmakers behind them is to extend some message or thought to the audience. Whether this thought is something elementary like, explosions look cool, or something more elaborate such as consumerism is chipping away at American values, in order to successfully explore the idea and get the message across it is important to keep it at the forefront of creative decisions. While most Hollywood filmmakers are aware of this, one of the pitfalls that they often fall into is trying to make the lead character relatable to the audience through their romantic subplot. Instead of being confident that they made compelling characters that the audience will be able to sympathize with and root for, writers often will place an unneeded emphasis on the characters love life. This is a common method because it is believed that most members of the audience have at one point or another experienced love even if they have not done rocket science, in the case of Hidden Figures. While Hidden Figures is not completely devoid of a romantic subplot, the writers of the film keep it at a strict minimum like it is intended, using it only as a way to assure the audience the lead characters are more than number crunchers. Throughout the film the lead characters romantic subplot serves exactly as a romantic subplot should. Instead of intertwining the two plots later in the film to cause conflict the work life and personal life of Katherine never come into contact with one another. Not only does this allow the film to be more than just another love story, but it also helps to strengthen the films message that women belong in the workplace and should not be regulated to domestic duties
While it is important that Hidden Figures was able to dodge the romantic subplot issue, one of the reasons that the film is resonating so well with critics and audiences is because the much explored beating the Soviets in the space race plot takes a back seat to the issue of how racism and sexism is impacting the countries quest for advancement; an issue modern audiences can identify with. While the issue of beating the Soviets into space was a large concern of the general public in the early 60’s modern audiences are not able to identify much with this conflict anymore. Instead of having the film laced with conflict from the Soviets, every scene that contains conflict in the film is a result of prejudiced. Again, like how the filmmakers handled the romantic subplot, the filmmakers limited the involvement of the Soviets in the film to make sure that it did not detract from the message of the film. If the Soviets had a bigger role in the film, then the audience could easily misinterpret that the antagonist of the film was the soviets. Instead of going the Soviet, by instead showing all of the roadblocks that the black female main characters had to go through throughout the film, it is instead understood that the real antagonist the film is highlighting is the average person’s role in allowing institutional racism and sexism to thrive.
The pitfalls that Hidden Figures has avoided has made sure that the film will stand apart from the other dozens of biopics that get made annually, but by just avoiding these pitfalls alone the film would not be as critical of a success as it is. The writing of the film was only the first step in making one of the more heartfelt and optimistic films of 2016. The performances given by the main and supporting cast ensure that each scene delivers the full message the narrative the film is trying to tell while the cinematography and soundtrack provide them with the perfect stage to do so. While Hidden Figures would have to beat the odds in order to win best picture at the end of the month, it accomplished its goal of inspiring its audience, therefore earning 4 out of 5 Reels from Celluloid Cinema.
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