Recently I saw Hidden Figures (2016). It's a pretty good movie, sentimental and important; topical and respectful. And it's typical fare for Best Picture these days. I'd also like to praise the direction and cinematography on this film, it introduces some very interesting cinematic thoughts to the common language of filmmaking. The way this film and Moonlight (2016) and other movies which focus on people of color are shot are shot is important and represents some important changes in Hollywood which will outlive the controversies of individual awards shows.
But Hidden Figures surprised me with one feature, a product of its writing and directing, that struck me beforeI even walked in the theater. It was a part of the movie I saw on the marquee outside my local cinema, but this is really important. It was the rating--PG. And that is as important and complicated a part of this film as any, and a challenge I think Hidden Figures rises to.
Without getting into the weeds of the boneheaded problems of the MPAA rating system, or the history of censuring movies, or anything else, I'd just like to put it out there that not enough serious PG movies cross our screens these days. But they should. The PG rating demonstrates and important range in the tone of films in terms of their appeal and accessibility and they. PG movies are movies people should see, and can't really have an excuse or an objection to. But that doesn't make them soft or easy.
The last movie with a PG rating to win a Best Picture Oscar was Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and, before Hidden Figures the last PG nominee I remember is Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). It's rare today to get your PG movie taken seriously, and it's hard to be serious within the limitations of the PG rating, but these last two films certainly rise to the occasion.
Something that Hidden Figures and Good Night, and Good Luck both do really well is walk a line between an edited version of history and an unfiltered vision of the day to day. This can obviously hinder drama, but it also it's a way to build it with constraints. These are both movies which do similar things like show the presence and feeling of sitting in a waiting room or running through a hallway. There's nothing controversial in scenes like that, but there can be every bit of character drama.
Certainly in the case of Hidden Figures though, meeting the PG rating in a film about racism in the 1960s, it must be hard to feel like the film is accurate in it's history. But there are ways in which this film is more than accurate and that's because it relies on developing the trails for it's characters in the minor, the day to day, slights of segregation. This is a movie that makes a coffee pot as hard a blow to the characters as a nightstick could be. And the audience really feels that because a significant todo is made of this slight. It percolates the daily racism of the time into our daily lives, something movies with this kind of important subject matter rarely do.
Similarly Good Night, and Good Luck brings the tension of McCarthyism into our living rooms. And it constrains itself to the world of the small screen. But that doesn't make the depiction of what's going on any less powerful. In fact I think it makes it more powerful. Both of these movies get their power from the concern people show in their daily lives.
I watched 12 Years a Slave (2013) again recently and it's a great movie. And it shows us some really important, unfiltered realities of life. That is the great thing about the more restricted end of the MPAA ratings, it's important to be able to show reality on screen. The daily life horrors of black people in the American South are definitely shown in 12 Years a Slave, but it's an important realization that there is a life for people that is more simply thematic--a drama that takes place on the way to the bathroom. Just as much a part of daily life as any other.
It's rare to see a movie stake it's claim to drama in the world of PG movies today, but I think that operating within those constraints is really important. It can make a movie deeply affecting, letting the drama bleed into the spaces an audience takes for granted. Those constraints also let the film reach an audience that might not otherwise be receptive to a film. The great PG films can be humbling rather than polarizing and they have an appeal that R rated films do not. I'm not just taking about children either, I'm talking about seeing the difference a few decades makes in people's rides to work.
I think that more filmmakers should take a stab at writing for the PG screen. It's actually one of the great traditions of American filmmaking, these simple crowd pleasers which also have raw drama in minutia. Hidden Figures, a somewhat cloying and topical film, loses nothing for its rating and frankly gains everything by showing reality with restraint that makes the meaning of the film palpable to an unsettling degree.