“Hidden Figures”–A Gestalt for Our Time

 

Hidden FiguresThe story of three brilliant African American women pushing back against the pre-Civil Rights America of 1961 is a stunning, mostly hidden story which has particular relevance today.

“Hidden Figures” is an adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name and follows three black women– Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson– who worked in NASA’s Langley, Virginia computer department. They worked in a segregated basement but not on computers. These black engineers were referred to as “human computers”, calculating complex calculus equations by hand. Even the mathematical formulas were hidden in a sense, to be discovered by these three remarkable women. They were among the first NASA employees to understand the power and capabilities of a massive IBM mainframe brought to NASA to assist in America’s first space launch.

Known as “human computers”, we follow these three intellects as they painfully rise through the ranks of NASA facing hurdles at every step, even under the watchful and largely sympathetic boss, Al Harrison (well played by Kevin Costner). They face the dual barriers of sex and race, while attempting to balance work and family life as well.  Hidden Figures

This untold story of the unsung heroes–the brains behind the pioneering Space Race is the history of hidden figures who contributed to the pivotal moments in science and technology after Russia had successfully launched Yuri Gagarin on Sputnik.

The opening scene of “Hidden Figures” reveals the precarious situation and tightrope dance that these three friends have to maneuver. Dorothy Vaughn (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is a mathematician who is also mechanically-inclined, and knows how to fix their car which breaks down on the way to NASA. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician who wants to stand up to the police officer who seems to be questioning why they are traveling on the highway at all. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) tries to signal to her friend to follow the playbook and let the officer take over, which he does, leading them to NASA. The tone is set for tiptoeing in a white man’s world.

At NASA we see Dorothy fight to be a supervisor, Mary struggle to attain the necessary educational certification to become an engineer, and Katherine receive the credit for her critical mathematical calibrations which enable NASA to launch and land safely. Even as Katherine continues to outperform her male colleagues, she still must drink coffee from a pot labeled “Colored” and have to walk 20 minutes each way to the building where the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is located.

Most of the screen time belongs to Katherine’s story and Taraji Henson chews up each scene with great humor and her signature feistiness. Her colleagues Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe are equally dazzling and the ensemble acting is impeccable. Hidden Figures is notable for being a disavowal of easy, uncomplicated stereotypes projected onto black women.

“Hidden Figures” is a marvelously entertaining and important film. Like the story of the Bletchley Circle of women codebreakers on the Enigma project during World War II (see my October 26, 2015 review of the Bletchley Park museum, “Bletchley Park: An Enigmatic Exploration” and my January 15, 2015 review of “Imitation Game”–Breaking the Code Breaker”. “Hidden Figures” is also an education in what our history books have failed to tell us.

Note: Katherine Goble Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of 17 Americans, on November 24, 2015 by President Obama. She was 97 at the time and is still living and active in STEM, a nonprofit program to encourage girls to study science and technology.

“Fences”–In or Out?

 

Fences“Some people build fences to keep people out–and other people build fences to keep people in”.

The film “Fences” (released Christmas Day 2016) is based on the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and screenplay by the brilliant playwright August Wilson (1945-2005).

“Fences” is set in 1950’s Pittsburgh.  Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) had been a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues in a time before Jackie Robinson. After serving time in prison he meets Rose (Viola Davis) who believes in him and devotes her life to their family: his older son Lyons from a previous relationship and their son, Cory.

The drama is timeless and the quiet visual cinematography does not seem to date the place or the power of broken dreams in lives led on the fumes of racism.   “Fences” wisely employs most of the cast of its Tony-winning 2010 Broadway revival. The actors’ familiarity with the characters translates into not only dizzying, heartbreaking performances but also the astonishing adaptation of their talent from theater to screen.

The transition from award-winning stage performances to equally worthy performances on film, the adjustment in acting techniques is astounding. Viola Davis on stage was so agitated, she looked like she was having a seizure as she gave her powerful soliloquy. On the silver screen, the camera caresses her face in a painful series of close-ups almost too devastating to watch as Viola Davis unforgettably expresses the way her husband has failed to see her for who she really is.   When the camera finally pulls back (as we viewers also wish to pull back), she is perfectly still.

Denzel Washington is less physical as well in the film version. The psychology of his damaged character lies beneath the surface as the camera lingers on his charm–and his luminescent smile– smothering his dark side. We see why his wife Rose would fall in love with him—and stay in spite of his infidelity and abusive nature. Parts of “Fences” are almost unendurable for the tragic nature of each character. Rose loves him, but once he breaks not only her heart but the rest of the family she protects, she icily destroys him: “You are a womanless man”.

Fathers acting out their pain onto their children appear throughout literature and film, and this quiet catastrophe is a masterpiece. We are born into a family and our family is born into us.   But this thought exemplifies Rose’s disbelief in the inevitability of this cycle. Rose represents hope.

August Wilson leaves the question open: When are we inheriting the sins of our parents and when do we move on? This is our legacy as humans. Can there be beauty and joy out of pain and suffering?

Note: Wilson wrote ten plays over two decades, portraying African-American life in Pittsburgh with a lyricism and poetry both Shakespearean in its conflicts and resonant of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in its scenes from a marriage and father-son conflict. Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” also comes to mind in its pioneering depiction of African American lives on the theatrical stage.  Some of Wilson’s other plays will be adapted for television by HBO and his play “Jitney” will come to Broadway this spring.

 

The Great Wall–Not Trump’s Version

The Great Wall

[Another guest post by Ray Hecht, who reviewed this movie on his website on January 5.  The movie has already been released in China where Ray resides but will not be released in the US until February.  The following review is abridged.]

The Great Wall was recently released in China with much hype. Directed by  the critically acclaimed  Zhang Yimou ( Raise the Red Lantern), and starring Matt Damon, it is  the first truly American and Chinese coproduction.

Unfortunately, the film has already been poorly received and critically panned in China. However,  it can still make for an enjoyable romp.

The Great Wall  succeeds at being an exciting fantasy adventure about Western explorers fighting monsters in an ancient Chinese setting. The story opens with horse-riding mercenaries seeking mysterious explosive black powder. Eventually they make it to the Great Wall, where they meet Damon’s love interest Commander Lin (played by Jing Tian).

Matt Damon’s costar,  Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), is excellent and usually outshines Damon in scenes they share. The pair of warriors have good chemistry as buddy action films, although with a somewhat predictable character arc.

The plot moves quickly. Monsters  called Taotie  are  hordes of demons in epic battles. The carefully honed craft of Chinese wushu-style film proves to be more engaging than the indulgences of high-end Hollywood CGI war in intricate face-to-face combat.  The moral lessons of trust and loyalty are heavy handed. The original story of the monsters and  color-coded uniforms for the Chinese army seem reminiscent of the Power Rangers TV show targeted for children. The climatic final battle in the capital city does give the viewer some satisfactory drama,  but overall The Great Wall is not meant to be taken seriously.

This reviewer recommends having modest expectations and enjoy it for what it is: A fun, Hollywood fantasy movie which just happens to take place in China.

The Great Wall will be released in America on February 17th.