Tag Archives: Janelle Monae

Hidden Figures

America, 1960s: the country is still very much divided by colour. Martin Luther King Jr is marching, JFK appears to be listening, but black people are still drinking for different fountains, still sitting at the back of the bus. Meanwhile, at NASA, about 2 dozen black women are working their fingers to the bone (actually, working their brains dry – they’re not labourers, they’re computers in the time before computers were machines). Does hf-gallery-04-gallery-imageNASA pay them equally? Not by a long shot. Treat them fairly? Not so much. Promote them? Never. But hire them they must because there’s a space race on with the Russians, and they can’t afford not to hire the best and the brightest no matter the skin colour encasing the brains.

These women, buried deep in the basement of a building far away from the main action, are fighting prejudice on two levels: race and gender. Hidden Figures follows 3 of them, real-life women who helped launch John Glen into space. Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) does the work of a supervisor without the title or the pay. Not only does she get shit done, she intuits that the future of her computing department is changing and she takes it upon herself to learn the language of the future  – and International Business Machine is being installed painstakingly at NASA, and she’ll be the one to learn its code, and teach it to others. Mary Jackson (Monae) has an engineer’s talent and mind but she can’t get her credentials to match because the only education opportunity is at an all-white school. Katherine Johnson (Henson) is a single mother as well as a mathematical genius. When NASA discovers her talent she works overtime to help invent the new math necessary for John Glenn’s orbit while still drinking out of the “colored” coffee pot.

Hidden Figures is conventional story-telling all the way, relating the story of ground-breaking women in the least ground-breaking way possible. But it’s crowd-pleasing: it thumbnail_24795had the audience applauding. These women are so inspirational that it would be hard to mess up the story, and Hidden Figures manages not to stand in its own way. At the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, Pharrell Williams, who collaborated on the score with Hans Zimmer, gave a concert of all the original music he’d worked on for the film. I worried that he might overshadow the film, but in fact his music fits right in very comfortably, establishing the time period in a pop-heavy way.

The cast is stacked with heavy-hitters. Octavia Spencer is nominated for a Golden Globe for her role, and she’s as good as we know she can be. But I was impressed with Taraji P. Henson, who plays a vamp and a bit of a diva with the press, and an outspoken, strong contender on Empire, but in Hidden Figures managed to play bookish and humble with a shy strength and subversive self-confidence.

Hidden Figures is a feel-good tribute; a story that was meant to be told. The script is a charmer, and surprisingly humourous, and the three leads infuse it with power. Sure it’s a bit run-of-the-mill, but it’s also a positive way to start the new year, and a movie you won’t be able to resist.

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Moonlight

hero_moonlight-tiff-2016Moonlight is the quietest tour de force I’ve probably ever seen. Never have I rooted for a drug dealer in this way, and never have I sympathized so much with a kid who wanted to follow in that drug dealer’s footsteps. Moonlight is spectacular in its simplicity. It is also entirely different than the movie I expected.

That difference comes in its approach. This is a coming-of-age story focused on a likeable outsider named Chiron who has been dealt a terrible hand. His father is absent, his mother is barely there, and he’s a walking bully target. He’s called soft but he’s got an obvious inner strength, and I loved him right from the start. He didn’t have to say a word to get me on his side. Which is fortunate because he’s not much of a talker.

081816-celebs-janelle-monae-s-film-moonlightChiron’s adolescence is the subject of three tightly focused vignettes. It’s a wonderful storytelling choice that perfectly explains Chiron’s choices as he grows up, without having to engage in any exposition. Moonlight is brave in many ways but to me it’s the choice to let us figure things out for ourselves that makes this film great. It makes the journey more fulfilling, the experience more real, and greatly increases our empathy for Chiron. Moonlight helps us understand Chiron to a degree that I would not have thought possible. Regardless of your race, wealth, or sexual orientation, we are all a lot like Chiron.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins somehow enhances that commonality at every turn, and also finds beauty everywhere he takes us.  His efforts are supported by wonderful performances from top to bottom. moonlight_1-5-1-e1477472370758Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes each take remarkable turns as Chiron and the extent to which they feel like the same person is incredible. Mahershala Ali is not the only other actor deserving of mention (the supporting cast is consistently great) but for my money his performance as the aforementioned drug dealer shapes Chiron’s life and makes us understand his growth to a degree that is virtually unmatched in film.

Moonlight has been on my watch list for a long time. It was well worth the wait and deserves every bit of acclaim coming its way.  It’s perfect from start to finish. Go see it!