Monthly Archives: February 2017

  • Hidden Figures

    Theodore Melfi (2016)

    Hidden Figures is a crowd-pleaser and the box-office figures give an idea of the magnitude of the crowds being pleased:  the picture, which cost $25m to make, has taken $171.3m worldwide in the two months since it opened in the US.  Theodore Melfi’s second feature (his first was the modest St Vincent in 2014) is broad, unsubtle and a thoroughly deserved popular success.  The screenplay by Melfi and Allison Schroeder is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Hidden Figures combines two differently stirring headline stories of the 1960s, African-American Civil Rights and the Space Race:  it’s hardly surprising that the film rights were snapped up several months before Shetterly’s book was published (by which time the movie was nearing completion).  The clever title is a pun; the title characters are black women mathematicians, employed by NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.  (Margot Lee Shetterly, who is African-American, was born in Hampton in 1969.  Her mother was a professor of English at Hampton University, an historically black institution.  Her father worked as a research scientist at the Langley Center.)

    The film focuses on three individuals who, at the start, all work in Langley’s segregated ‘West Area’ computers division:  Katherine Goble, a mathematical prodigy; Mary Jackson, who wants to be an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, the division’s de facto supervisor, though she’s not officially recognised or paid as such.  The action is set in 1961 and early 1962, against the background of increasing pressure on NASA scientists in the light of Soviet space successes that culminate in Yuri Gagarin’s orbiting Earth in April 1961.  Katherine (Taraji P Henson) is temporarily assigned as a ‘computer’ to the ‘Space Task’ group, headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  Mary (Janelle Monáe) is sent to work with a group of engineers.  In both cases, all their scientist colleagues are white males – although Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish concentration camp survivor, suggests to Mary, by way of encouragement, that he’s as much an against-the-odds member of the engineering team as she is.  Back in the West Area, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) learns of the impending installation of an electronic computer and realises machines of this kind could make her and her colleagues redundant.  She teaches herself then trains the other West Area staff in the use of FORTRAN.   The climax to Hidden Figures is the Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight of 20 February 1962, in which John Glenn became the first US astronaut to orbit Earth.  By now, Katherine, no longer required, has returned to West Division.  Minutes before lift-off, discrepancies in calculations of the space capsule’s landing co-ordinates cause Glenn (Glen Powell), who’s met and been impressed by Katherine at earlier stages of planning for Project Mercury, to request that she be asked to resolve the discrepancies.  She does so but, after a successful launch, a problem with the capsule’s heat shield develops.  Katherine’s spot-on advice on what to do next ensures that John Glenn survives re-entry and lands safely in the ocean.

    According to Wikipedia, Glenn did specifically ask that Katherine Johnson verify the computer calculations for his historic spaceflight but ‘she had several days before the launch date to complete the process’.  This is a hint of how shamelessly free with the historical facts Hidden Figures is (again according to Wikipedia) – in order to intensify the drama and the racial issues involved.  Attentive viewers will notice from the film’s closing legends that Theodore Melfi has also bent the facts of the women’s personal lives to engineer a more immediately engaging storyline.  In the movie, the widowed Katherine has a whirlwind romance with James Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a National Guard officer, and marries him; the epilogue tells us that Katherine Goble Johnson, who is now ninety-eight, has been married to James Johnson for fifty-six years.  On the basis of what Melfi has shown previously, this is a chronological impossibility – but the Johnsons actually married in 1959, two years before they first meet on screen.  That’s a very minor fiddling of facts beside the film’s account of the heroines’ professional lives[1].  How much does such falsification matter?

    Watching Hidden Figures soon after La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge was a salutary reminder of how subjectively one reacts to a director who blatantly works the audience.  I sometimes pretend I simply don’t like films in which this happens but I know I’m not being honest.  Theodore Melfi is as obviously manipulative – shaping the material to generate a particular response from the viewer – as Damien Chazelle or Mel Gibson.  Yet not only was I swept up by Melfi’s movie; I didn’t try to resist and didn’t resent what he was doing.  I think there are two reasons for this.  The less positive reason is that the manipulation at work in Hidden Figures, compared with that of La La Land, seems unsophisticated.  Melfi switches back and forth, and schematically, to tell the women’s stories, which take the form of a series of advances towards self-fulfilment and liberation – always achieved through their being determined and smart.  Even when they’re on the receiving end of racism or sexism, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy always have a sharp putdown:  as well as embodying the overarching moral argument, they win each mini-argument along the way.  The more positive reason is that the Civil Rights motor of these stories makes them not only compelling but in essence truthful.  Whereas Mel Gibson in Hacksaw Ridge exploits his hero’s commitment to non-violence to deliver a startlingly violent war movie, you never feel that Theodore Melfi is exploiting the racial injustice theme in a way that fundamentally distorts it.   

    Because the discrimination and segregation that Hidden Figures describes is inherently incensing, you always hope that Melfi (who’s white) won’t push it too hard.  On the whole, he doesn’t.  Some of the less obviously dramatic instances are particularly incisive:  Katherine’s discovery that the other members of the Space Task group have introduced an apartheid system for office refreshments, with jars of coffee labelled ‘white’ and ‘coloured’;  a librarian (Rhoda Griffis) who takes Dorothy to task for straying into the ‘white books’ section.  There are seriocomic examples of one form of prejudice confounding another.  At the start, Mary, Katherine and Dorothy, on the way to work, are pulled over by a traffic policeman (Ron Clinton Smith):  he forgives them for being black and female when he learns they’re employed doing what he sees as anti-Soviet work.  Mary wins the legal right to attend engineering night school classes at an historically whites-only college and arrives for the first lecture; the discomfited male professor (Michael Hartson) suggests to her that the syllabus isn’t designed for women.

    Melfi does well to avoid suggesting that an act of recognition signals a conclusive, race-equality breakthrough:  as Katherine prepares to return to the West Area, Al Harrison’s PA Ruth (Kimberly Quinn) presents her with a wedding present on behalf of the Space Task group – a pearl necklace, part of the uniform of white women at Langley.  There’s a dutiful chill in Ruth’s affable manner as she presents the gift.  Katherine’s high-speed, long-distance journeys from the Space Task group building to the nearest ‘coloured’ toilet in West Area are milked, though Melfi gets some tonal variety into them.  Her big outburst when Harrison loses patience and demands to know where Katherine disappears to every day is delivered too deliberately:  it needs to come out more unthinkingly, more unstoppably.  The follow-up sequence, in which Harrison takes a jemmy to a metal toilet sign and declares all bathrooms open to all ethnic groups, is effective as a partly comic image – a white-collar scientist driven to effortful manual work.  Melfi detracts from this with the accompaniment of the movie’s standard-issue inspirational music (by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and Benjamin Wallfisch).  Katherine is repeatedly shown standing in physical isolation from her white co-workers.  These shots are more eloquent than the emphatic ones of doors literally shutting in her face.

    Taraji P Henson defines Katherine’s character strongly and clearly.   She isn’t fluid moving from one mood to another but she’s highly likeable.  Compared with both Katherine and Dorothy, Mary is an underwritten character and Janelle Monáe, though she’s proficient, plays her obviously (Monáe is better in Moonlight).  The role of Mary’s Civil Rights activist husband (Aldis Hodge) is perfunctory too.  Octavia Spencer gives a performance of maturity and authority as Dorothy.  When the snotty white supervisor Vivian Mitchell insists that ‘Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all’, Spencer achieves dramatic and comic impact through her quiet delivery of the reply:  ‘I know.  I know you probably believe that’.  Kirsten Dunst, a surprising choice to play Vivian, is very effective.  Although Colonel Johnson is an unremarkable part, Mahershala Ali, as in Moonlight, lights up the screen from the moment he appears. (His physical resemblance to Linford Christie is even more striking here.)  Ali’s imposing appearance is leavened by embarrassment in an early conversation with Katherine in which Johnson makes a chauvinist fool of himself, and by humorous charm in the delightful scene in which he proposes marriage.   Kevin Costner is alert, precise and altogether excellent as Al Harrison.  He’s convincing, it must be said, as a man with more paunch than gravitas – and in apparently failing to inspire his troops in the desperate pep talk that follows Gagarin’s space flight.  As a combination of professional competence and limited imagination, Costner’s Harrison is very credible.  Glen Powell is an appealing, though very young, John Glenn (Powell is twenty-eight, Glenn was forty in 1961).  Glenn enjoyed a long, successful and pretty honourable public life in politics after his astronaut career ended.  He died last December, aged ninety-five, just a few days before Hidden Figures opened.  In conjunction with Katherine Goble Johnson’s remarkable longevity and standing, Glenn’s life and recent death boost the film as a celebration of real-life American heroism.

    Theodore Melfi handles his big cast well, not least in dissuading actors who are mouthpieces for racism and misogyny from moral commentary at the expense of characterisation.  This happens even when Melfi’s and Allison Schroeder’s writing of the parts in question seems to dictate crude playing.  Paul Stafford, the touchy and egotistical head engineer who refuses to let Katherine’s name appear as his co-author on reports which she’s largely produced, is much less crude a baddie than he might be, thanks to James Parsons, who plays him.  Frank Hoyt Taylor, as the judge who hears Mary’s plea to enrol for engineering studies, is also better than his role.  No one in this film perpetrates the kind of smug, look-how-nasty-people-like-this-were-in-those-days number that we get from Jack Davenport in A United Kingdom, for example.   Melfi makes liberal use throughout of news film of the period and this seems right – an explicit recognition of how the audience (or people of my and older generations at least) naturally perceive the history of Civil Rights and the Space Race.  In a lighter vein, the sheer incomprehensibility of Katherine’s lightning calculations is always enjoyable.  Hidden Figures begins with a mechanical prologue illustrating the phenomenal mathematical gifts of the child Katherine (Lidya Jewett); this is followed by the encounter between the heroines and the white traffic cop.   These sequences are agreeable enough but you wonder how Theodore Melfi is going to keep things going for another two hours.  You soon realise that the story and his button-pushing approach to telling it will see Melfi through.  In the event, the themes and the acting do more than that: by halfway, Hidden Figures has become utterly absorbing entertainment.  It stays that way to the end.

    22 February 2017

    [1] Further details are in the ‘Historical Accuracy’ section of the article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures#Production

     

  • Moonlight

    Barry Jenkins (2016)

    Moonlight is interesting in plenty of ways, including the technicality of whether Barry Jenkins’s screenplay is an original or an adapted one.  BAFTA and the Writers Guild of America think it’s original; the Academy has ruled it’s an adaptation.  There’s no disagreement about the fact that Jenkins’s source material is a theatre piece – In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney.   The different interpretations arise from the fact that McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play, written in 2003, has never been publicly performed.   The question of originality in a more substantial sense persists as you watch Moonlight but the film quickly impresses as being unusual.  Within the first ten minutes, Jenkins has introduced characters rarely encountered in the cinema by this viewer.  A black boy is an outsider not because of his ethnicity (there isn’t a white person in sight throughout) but because of his sexuality (at this early stage, his perceived sexuality).  A drug dealer is also a powerfully reassuring father figure.   Moonlight is soon atmospherically distinctive too:  Jenkins makes you feel extraordinary proximity to the people on the screen.  He achieves this partly through conventional visual means of creating immediacy – a hand-held camera, close-ups of faces – but there’s more to it than that.  The pacing of conversations – or attempts at making conversation – is such that you’re very aware of the often eloquent silences between the lines.  The alternation between words and no words helps to give scenes a texture of real life and that feeling of reality to override what, on the page, would read as sometimes clichéd dialogue.

    The film comprises three sections (or acts) – ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’.  The second section refers to the protagonist by name; the first and third sections refer to him by his obviously suggestive nicknames.  In each section, we see Chiron at a different age and played by a different actor.  The child Chiron (Alex Hibbert) lives in a suburb of Liberty City in Miami.  After finding the kid hiding from a group of other boys, Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack cocaine dealer, takes Chiron back to the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) before returning Chiron the following day to his single mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  After this first meeting, Chiron takes every opportunity to spend time with Juan and Teresa rather than with the emotionally abusive, drug-dependent Paula.  At school, the slight, shy child has a single friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner), who tells Chiron he shouldn’t simply let himself be bullied.  ‘Little’ reaches a climax with the revelation to Chiron that his mother is one of Juan’s crack customers.

    In the second section, the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders), although he’s grown much taller, remains uncertain and reticent, and his lankiness emphasises his vulnerability at school – a classmate called Terrel (Patrick Decile) is the bullying bane of his life.  Juan has died but Chiron still visits Teresa, who takes a more helpful maternal interest in him than the now crack-addicted Paula does.  Chiron’s friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has continued.  Kevin nicknames him ‘Black’.  One night, after they’ve shared a cannabis joint and are sitting on the beach together, the boys kiss and Kevin fondles Chiron.  Soon afterwards, Terrel forces Kevin – on pain of a beating himself – to punch his friend in the face.  When Kevin reluctantly floors him, Chiron gets up.  Kevin has to hit him repeatedly before Chiron stays down; Terrel and his acolytes kick him, until a security guard intervenes.  The following day, Chiron walks into the classroom, smashes a chair into Terrel’s back and is arrested.

    The third section picks up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in his mid-twenties.  After spending time in a youth detention centre, he’s become a drug dealer, based on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia.  ‘Black’ is his professional name and appears on his car number-plate.  Paula keeps calling Chiron and he drives to see her in the drug rehab unit where it seems she’s now virtually resident.  This visit, which ends with him tearfully and tentatively forgiving his contrite mother, is followed immediately by Chiron’s renewal of another acquaintance in Miami, after receiving a phone call from Kevin.  He has also spent time in detention and now works in a diner.  The two men meet and talk there; Chiron, who tells Kevin (André Holland) he doesn’t usually touch alcohol, gets a little drunk; they go back to Kevin’s place.  Although he’s now a father, Kevin appears to live alone.  He confides in Chiron that he feels he’s not done much in his life other than what other people expected of him but says he’s nevertheless content.  For his part, Chiron admits that, since their evening on the beach together as teenagers, he’s never had sex.  He and Kevin embrace.  Barry Jenkins cuts to a final image of the child Chiron against a moonlit sea.

    In the ‘Little’ part of Moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is, in every way, a towering presence.  His absence thereafter is felt by the protagonist and the viewer alike, although Juan stays strongly in our minds, as in Chiron’s.  Especially memorable is the sequence in which Juan teaches Chiron to swim in the ocean.  This rhapsodic episode transmits the nervous boy’s growing trust in someone both physically authoritative and humorously kind.  Held in the man’s arms, the child submits to the water; the effect is almost baptismal.  (It called to mind the 1981 BBC biographical drama serial The Life and Times of Lloyd George – or, at least, the opening titles sequence, accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s ‘Chi Mai’ theme, which included the boy David’s baptism in a lake.)  The contrast between this and kingpin Juan’s last scene in the film is powerful.  When Chiron asks him if he sells drugs, Juan nods his head in shame and weeps silently.

    Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders, as the first two Chirons, are perfectly cast to ensure continuity between the boy and the teenager.  That makes it all the more startling that the adult Chiron is physically unrecognisable from his younger selves.  He wears diamond ear studs and a do-rag, and has obviously modelled his appearance on Juan’s.  At first, Trevante Rhodes simply looks wrong but you soon realise that’s the point.   Chiron has remade himself in Juan’s outer image; he’s followed the same career path but not the advice that Juan once gave him – ‘At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be.  Don’t let nobody make that decision for you’.  Years of body-building have ensured that Chiron can no longer be accused of effeminacy but his muscular physique, like the gold grills on his teeth, is part of a suit of armour.  Well before Chiron reveals to Kevin that he’s repressed his sexuality, Trevante Rhodes has done a fine job of gradually revealing ‘Black’’s vulnerability.  The removal of the teeth grills, during the diner conversation with Kevin, is just the start.

    As a coming-of-age story about a man troubled by his sexual orientation, Moonlight has been compared with two other famous American films of the last decade or so, Boyhood and Brokeback Mountain.  (I say ‘other’ because the currently high reputation of Barry Jenkins’s film should last.)   Even though the comparison is understandable, the resemblances between this picture and Boyhood are superficial.  The points of intersection with Brokeback Mountain are more substantial but raised questions in my mind about the last part of Moonlight.  It’s more than easy to believe that a physically timid and unprepossessing boy growing up in a tough area of Florida in the 1980s would have a hard, bullying time from other kids.  Although it’s harder to think that a turn-of-the-millennium drug dealer in Atlanta would be as socially compelled to hide his homosexuality as a blue-collar worker in rural Wyoming during the 1960s and beyond, it’s also clear that Barry Jenkins wants to address the particular obduracy of black concepts of maleness and their implications for gay black men.  The African-American writer Michael Arceneaux has described this in the following terms in a piece on Moonlight:

    ‘Men of all races have [to] contend with the misogyny that births homophobia, but black men have to contend with a rigid idea of masculinity. These men think they are protecting black manhood when in reality, they’re merely serving as cheerleaders and puppets of gender rules derived from white patriarchy.’

    Even so, the tragedy of Chiron’s self-imposed celibacy – and his solitariness more largely – is engineered.  In ‘Little’, when Chiron asks Juan what a ‘faggot’ is, he gets a careful, sensitive and (for thirty-odd years ago) improbably enlightened reply:  ‘It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves’.  Chiron then asks, ‘Am I a faggot?’ and Juan answers, ‘No – you might be gay but you ain’t a faggot’.  Exchanging looks with Teresa, Juan goes on to say that Chiron will need to work out for himself whether he is gay.  It’s somewhat contrived that, once Juan has gone from his life, Chiron, while adopting his boyhood protector’s surface and negative features, effectively forgets the things Juan said and did that might have proved helpful or fortifying.  Although Chiron briefly implies, during his last meeting with Paula, that he’s still in touch with Teresa, this consistently sympathetic and stabilising element in his young life is conspicuous by her absence from the ‘Black’ section.

    Kevin’s suddenly making contact with Chiron after years of silence sticks out as a similarly convenient device for making the dramatic climax happen yet the scenes between Trevante Rhodes and André Holland are so nuanced and intimate that they erase the doubts in your mind.  (This is in spite of the fact that Chiron and Kevin are no longer so believable as contemporaries:  Holland is actually ten years older than Rhodes, and looks it.)  Barry Jenkins’s orchestration of the work of all his excellent actors is admirable.  He strikes an imaginative balance between showing the three faces of  Chiron – all remarkable camera subjects – and showing other faces through Chiron’s eyes.  On a couple of occasions, we hear a character’s voice as we watch a face whose lips don’t move:  it’s a simple, vivid way of suggesting that what stays in Chiron’s mind from these moments is the way someone looked at him.  This is only Jenkins’s second feature but he directs with a very sure touch.  (It may be unfair to Tarell Alvin McCraney to call the touch alchemical but I can’t help feeling that the source material has been much enhanced.)   With the considerable help of James Laxton’s expressive cinematography and a score by Nicholas Britell that combines hesitancy and fervency, Moonlight casts a spell.

    21 February 2017

     

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