“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.

“Empire” –It’s All About Cookie

 

Cookie and Lucious

Cookie and Lucious

“Empire”, part family saga, part “Glee”, and part soap opera, is an entertaining new television series on Fox with something for everyone!

Created by Lee Daniels (of “Precious” and “The Butler” fame), “Empire” gives both Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyons and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, his ex-wife, the platform to demonstrate their considerable acting and singing skills. The drama focues on hip-hop music mogul, Lucious Lyons, an underworld lowlife criminal whose wife took the seventeen-year prison sentence he should have had as partners in crime. Empire Entertainment, the hugely successful music company Lucious built while Cookie was in prison, is worth a fortune. Now the three sons fight for control, hoping to inherit fortune, fame, and power while their father is expected to die of a terminal illness. An IPO is pending and the sibling rivalry becomes ugly. Moreover, Cookie has suffered and after seventeen years separated from her sons, she now wants to claim what is rightfully hers: her sons and half of Empire. Empire2

The number-one broadcast drama on television, , “Empire” has the rich dialogue expected of the best screenwriters overlaid with the campy, over-the-top performances one usually associates with soap opera. But there is one very big difference. Cookie steals every scene she is in –a force of nature who chews up her lines and the other characters, a ferocious lioness and a comic. One of my favorite lines: Cookie’s view of her son’s false bravado, posturing about life in the ‘hood’– “The streets ain’t made for everyone – that’s why they made sidewalks.”

To say the Lyons family is dysfunctional is an understatement.   There’s the gay son, Jamal, battling with the cold, sadistic homophobic father (Lucious), the defiant son Hakeem, experiencing “dearest Mommy” issues, and the outlier son, Andre, who is excluded from all communications that count. Cookie’s return to the family fold begs the question: What is family, when the mother has been imprisoned for seventeen years?

The empathy for characters, unfortunately, does not always flow smoothly when the music appears. Mostly rap, the songs sometimes jar the narrative, although they can be appealing to the younger viewer. “You’re So Beautiful” is an exception, sung by Jamal, a leitmotif connecting the past rejection by his father with the present confidence as he comes out as gay. Cookie glows as she revels in Jamal, her favorite son, the one who has her soul.

As the undisputed star of Empire, Cookie is the most watchable character in a highly watchable show.  Carbonated joy. Delicious. It’s all about Cookie!