Academy Award nominations are out. The increase in the diversity of the nominees is a step in the right direction. Hopefully this year’s nominations will not be a “one-off,” but will instead signal a trend toward recognizing and honoring films and artists of a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds.
However, in the midst of all the nominations, one name is conspicuously missing- Taraji P. Henson. As the star of Best Picture nominee “Hidden Figures,” it seems odd not to find her name among the Actress in a Leading Role candidates.
Octavia Spencer, one of Henson’s co-stars in the film, is nominated as Actress in a Supporting Role. This is Spencer’s second time to be nominated in that category, having previously won in 2011 for her work in “The Help.”
While Spencer gives a very good performance as mathematician and manager Dorothy Vaughan (and delivers an excellent retort regarding racism), Henson’s portrayal of Katherine G. Johnson is the heart of “Hidden Figures.” Johnson’s true life career at NASA is the plot’s main focus. So, naturally, Henson’s performance is the center of the film, with all the other portrayals playing off her character.
Henson is convincing as Johnson, portraying the mathematical genius as an intelligent, witty, talented woman who displayed great grace despite enduring racial and gender discrimination. If STEM careers are the future for young Americans, then Johnson and the other African-American women hired as “computers” by NASA were early pioneers for women in the sciences. Henson’s portrayal makes Johnson an accessible and admirable role model- a loving mother to three young daughters; a charming yet brave widow; and a sharp, professional, and crucial member of the Space Task Group. Johnson’s real life calculations put astronaut John Glenn into orbit and enabled America to win the space race against Russia.
Henson’s performance as Johnson is the polar opposite of her role as Cookie Lyons on TV’s “Empire.” For Cookie, Henson unleashes fireworks and drama. As Johnson, Henson pulls that emotion back, presenting a character filled with dignity, determination, and the skills required to think “beyond the numbers.” Both Johnson and Cookie are courageous but conduct themselves in very different ways. To play these characters, Henson had to channel dissimilar approaches to life.
That Academy voters overlooked the quiet power of Henson’s portrayal of Johnson is a shame. Fortunately, the box office stats for “Hidden Figures” have shown audiences are impressed by the true life story and the performances from the film’s entire cast.
Here’s hoping the Academy extends invitations to both Henson and the real life Katherine Johnson (now 98 years old) to attend February 26’s Oscar ceremonies. Both women helped make “Hidden Figures” the inspiring, Best Picture nominee that it is.