WISDOM BORN OF PAIN
Main Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Director: Theodore Melfi
I’m just back from the final session of ADR looping on my wonderful new film, a colossal musical adaptation of Stephen King’s It in which I play the title role. We’ve gotten through principal photography and reshoots and are now well into post production. I’ve been very pleased by the sequences I’ve seen at the studio screening room. My big tap number as Pennywise the clown where I lead the children through the quaint streets of a Maine town to a jaunty little tune is simply lovely and will certainly be remembered when Academy Award nominations come out. The special effects that allow me to be in multiple places at once are seamless and the overdubbing of my vocals make me sound like the Shirelles, the Ronettes and the Chiffons all wrapped into one glorious package. I’ve had my people get hold of the Maine Tourist Bureau to see if we can get Normy and I, the Maines, to tie in my new Maine set film with their ‘Visit Maine’ campaign. I can just see me as Pennywise holding a lobster in each hand encouraging the people of America to come on up for a clambake.
The producers of the reality television special filmed at my recent gala open house are busy working with the footage. They’ve got some truly splendid shots of the caterers behind the scenes, the arrival of the guests into the grand hall, and the eventual deployment of the Beverly Hills SWAT team to restore order. The household staff are still trying to restore everything after the party. We keep finding odd graffiti, not to mention the scorch marks where the fireworks were aimed improperly. I’m working hard with various members of my team to work out ways of highlighting some of my fine consumer products. Leah, my head of merchandising, has hired a brilliant new visual designer, Donna Lil, who is committed to making all my products look their very best on camera. We’re doing some insert shots of jars of Lesterene tomato basil eye cream against piles of crushed royal blue velvet which the producers can add to the B role.
It’s a lot of activity but I am not feeling overly fulfilled as I do not currently have a new project in the works. The pile of ‘for your consideration’ scripts is not what it once was but I never worry too much as something always turns up. I was just going to head to the home theater for a film when DeWolfe, the famous theatrical impresario called and asked me out to dinner and a movie so we might have a chance to talk over future projects. I immediately said yes, leaving Normy to his own devices and headed off to the Formosa Café where we sampled edamame and discussed the possibility of my appearing in his new stage spectacular this spring. My schedule is open so I gave him a tentative yes but can’t divulge too much about the project in advance. I must get my high C and upper belt back into shape to undertake it as it’s a demanding score. Madame Mimi, my vocal coach, has her work cut out for her.
Our choice for film at the local Cineplex was the new adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures, the relatively unknown story of the African American women mathematicians or computers who provided the complex calculations necessary to get NASA and the space race off the ground in the early 1960s. It’s based on the lives and work histories of three extraordinary women, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who broke gender and color barriers in Jim Crow Virginia. We first meet Katherine as a mathematical child prodigy in rural West Virginia whose family make sacrifices to get her the schooling she needs. We then fast forward to the Kennedy administration and the early space race between the US and the USSR and the Mercury program attempting to get a human into orbit and safely back again. (The same historical incidents were covered in Tom Wolfe’s novel and subsequent movie The Right Stuff thirty years ago.) Katherine, now a young widow with three daughters, and her friends Dorothy and Mary all work in Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia for the federal government as part of the West Area computing group, a gaggle of bright young African-American women who, in the days before ubiquitous computing machines, perform the precise mathematical calculations necessary for rocket flight. One day, Katherine is transferred to the nascent space task group at NASA who have need for a computer where she encounters a tough, but fair, boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and his sneering associate Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons). Her mathematical skills eventually earn her respect, especially from John Glenn (Glen Powell) whose successful orbital flight and life depend on her abilities. In the meantime, Dorothy discovers the new IBM computer NASA has purchased and quickly realizes the need for her human computers to retrain themselves in this brave new world of programming and battles the rigid bureaucracy in the form of Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst). Mary has a dream of becoming an engineer but the segregated Virginia schools keep her from getting the classes she needs to take the positions she’s qualified to fill. We follow the women over the crucial years of the Kennedy administration from the ascent of Yuri Gagarin to John Glenn’s orbiting of the planet, both in the workplace and in their personal lives.
The film is blessed with a trio of great performances in the central roles. Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for The Help, effortlessly steals every scene she can as the forceful Dorothy and Janelle Monae, best known as a recording artist, holds her own as the spunky and sexy Mary against the veterans. Taraji P. Henson, as Katherine, has to carry the film as it’s more her story than anyone else’s. She manages to project the character’s resolute inner strength, her brilliance and her deep insecurities as she finds herself running into professional and societal challenges. The supporting cast are less successful, and this is the fault of the screenplay (Theodore Melfi who also directed and Alison Schroeder). To maximize dramatic conflict, both Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst are forced into stereotypical situations where their characters stand in for the sins of white America in the Jim Crow period. It’s helpful to us as viewers to see all the obstacles are heroines needed to overcome, but piling them on the same individuals make them more one dimensional than they need to be. The screenplay is also a bit dishonest. The federal government got rid of separate but equal facilities by the late 50s so the issues over bathrooms and coffee pots would not have existed at the time the film is set.
Ultimately, Hidden Figures succeeds as a triumph over adversity biopic. The historical events underlying the Mercury program are well known so we’re never in doubt about the fate of John Glenn (unlike the characters on screen) but the actors are committed and the film is well enough made that we get the same nagging doubts that the characters have and have the same exhilaration when they succeed. We’re also carried along by an absolutely infectious musical score, mainly courtesy of Pharrell Williams, which marries period pop with a modern sensibility. The film also marries period stock footage with our story and has a visual look that recreates Kennedy era mores and fashion to a tee. From the heels and pearls on the women, to the uniform white dress shirts on the men, it all looks like it leapt from the pages of Life magazine.
The skill of the actors, who milk every last bit of comedy out of their scenes, our current understanding of the unsung contributions of African-Americans to the story of America which must be celebrated, and the nature of feel good films in general make the movie well worth seeing and worth the price of the evening show over a matinee. The end credits are full of photos of the actual women and their families and I am pleased to say that Katherine Johnson is still with us at age 98 and able to see how her story has inspired millions to rise to their full abilities.
Stalled car. Parking lot running. Chock full of nuts. Stuck heel. Engagement party. Gratuitous church picnic. Empty coffee pot. Sing destruction. Newsreel briefings. Loose heat shield.
photo by Alyssa True Assamnew
Originally from Seattle Washington, land of mist, coffee and flying salmon, Mrs. Norman Maine sprang to life, full grown like Athena, from Andy’s head during a difficult period of life shortly after his relocation to Alabama.