A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016)

Ron Clinton Smith, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures
Katherine G. Johnson: Taraji P. Henson
Dorothy Vaughan: Octavia Spencer
Mary Jackson: Janelle Monáe
Al Harrison: Kevin Costner
Vivian Mitchell: Kirsten Dunst
Paul Stafford: Jim Parsons
Jim Johnson: Mahershala Ali
Levi Jackson: Aldis Hodge
John Glenn: Glen Powell

Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Production design: Wynn Thomas
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrell Williams, Hans Zimmer

What's so bad about feeling good? Hidden Figures was 2016's sleeper hit, a feel-good movie that's almost critic-proof because of its good intentions: to tell the stirring, long-neglected story of how black women mathematicians made a significant contribution to the 1960s American space program. It has some terrific performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe as three of the women, and they get strong support from Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst as slightly uptight white folks who can't quite believe that these black women are up to the task they have to set for them. But one place that the film falters is in casting the likes of Costner and Dunst, well-known Hollywood stars, in those roles: They introduce a note of imbalance in the film, evoking not only the "white savior" figure but also suggesting that the struggle of whites to accept black people as equals is on a par with the struggle of African Americans to gain that equality. The film also tries to evoke the horrors of Jim Crow by departing from actuality: Katherine Johnson didn't have to sprint across the NASA complex to find a "colored" restroom -- she simply used the one available -- and the scene in which Costner's character smashes the sign outside the segregated restroom is fictional. The early scene in which a white cop comes upon the three women whose car has broken down is meant to create tension, but it too quickly dissipates into feel-goodism when he learns that they're working at NASA and patriotically gives them an escort to work -- doing his part to thwart the commies. A black director and screenwriters -- Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder are white -- might have kept these suggestions that "white folks were really good at heart" more in balance with the depictions of not only the real pain caused by segregation but also the actual work done by the women.

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