Wednesday 22 February 2017

Hidden Figures ... Girl power blasts off

AFTER the fiasco of last year's #OscarsSoWhite, there are three black films up for Best Picture at Sunday's Oscars ceremony.
  The film opens in Malaysia today to coincide with the hoopla surrounding it, which is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly -- Hidden Figures: The American Dream And The Untold Story of the  Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race.
   My first viewing of writer-director Theodore Melfi's film made me tear up. It's so blatantly an uplifting tearjerker. The same thing happened the second time.
  Viewers will step out of the cineplexes feeling good about themselves and how Nasa conquered space and racism.
  The film focuses on three black female mathematicians at Nasa in 1961. The first, bespectacled Katherine Gobel Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), is a widow with three girls. She's the film's nominal protagonist as she's been plucked from obscurity as kid and enrolled in college, where the close-up shot of the teacher's hand proffering a chalk to her will recur at a critical juncture in her working life.
   She's also never had another man after the death of her husband.
  The second is Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress), who
(From left) Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer
 show that some girls have all the fun. 
supervises black female mathematicians in a nondescript basement, but without the title and attendant pay. Her requests to blonde tough-nut Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) for recognition are met with resistance.   The third is Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), whose engineering talent is recognised by her Polish Jewish supervisor (Holocaust discrimination), but to become an aeronautical engineer, she must take classes in a white high school and gain admission to university. Her civil rights activist husband Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge) dampens her enthusiasm, telling her he doesn't want to see her get hurt, or it could be because of his male ego.
   All three will encounter discrimination, right from the get-go in the film. For example, the white cop who chances on their broken-down car in the middle of nowhere is schocked to find out that Nasa employs black women.
   They even encounter gender discrimination by their own race. For example, Katherine's suitor, Colonel
Katherine is the black rose among the white thorns. 
 Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), like all men, is downright surprised to learn about Katherine's job.
   I found the film well done and it deserves its many accolades, but I also found it syrupy sweet and sometimes silly.
   Katherine's talent comes to the attention of fictionalised Nasa space task programme chief Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who puts her under lead mathematician Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Stafford's ego won't let him acknowledge her superior talent, much less a black woman's. In fact, Katherine is the sole black woman working under Harrison.
   The film highlights racism Katherine faces daily. She's hurt when she's forced to get her coffee from a pot market 'colored'. She also has to disappear for more than 30 minutes each time she wants to go the loo as there are no 'colored' loos at her new building. However, her run to a coloured toilet is accompanied by a catchy Pharell song.
  All this happens under the watchful eyes of Harrison, whose office towers above his minions, meaning he has a clear view of everything. Harrison is portrayed as fair white man, but come on, how could he not have noticed the 'colored' coffee pot or Katherine's disappearance throughout the day and for many weeks? I notice a colleague coming to work late by 1 hour daily, and another is perpetually late by 1 to 2 hours.
  Katherine's outburst finally forces him to see things differently, although it's surprising to have a fair
Katherine has many steps to climb to convince
 her all white male colleagues.
white man among racists. Harrison gets to give the film's theme when he says "We are all the same race in Nasa."
  We have to ask whey the film is being released now, amid accusations of Russians hacking the Democratic party's website to give President Donald Trump an advantage in last year's election. Trump's national security adviser was forced to quit last week over his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
  The film is saying that everyone in the US has to band together for Nasa to overcome the Cold War enemy, Russia, and that includes making a saccharine film.

3 1/2 stars out of 5


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