Movies and Television

Reel Time | March 2017

Hidden Figures | PHOTO BY HOPPER STONE/FOX

Hidden Figures

In 1961, during the early days of the US space program, the Langley Research Center employs many African American women as “computers,” mathematicians who compute numbers for research. They work in the segregated West Area of the campus. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Mary (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer, in an Oscar-nominated role) are friends who carpool.

At a young age, Katherine’s mathematical talents earn her advanced educational opportunities. Now, as the widowed mother of three girls, she works as a computer in the West Area. Her condescending supervisor, Vivian (Kirsten Dunst), taps her to join the Space Task Group, headed by the taciturn Al (Kevin Costner).

Dorothy is the acting supervisor of the department and is determined to advance to supervisor—a job no black woman has ever held. Mary aspires to fill an opening for a space engineer, but when she applies, the
requirements suddenly change. She has to go through the courts to be allowed to take the necessary classes at a white high school because the state of Virginia refused to desegregate schools.

After her assignment to the Space Task Group, Katherine must walk half a mile to use the restroom for women of color. When Al realizes the loss of time and the indignity she faces, he tears down the “colored only”
sign and effectively desegregates the facility. As the Russians make huge gains in the race to space, US astronauts prepare. When the astronauts arrive at Langley, John Glenn (Glen Powell) goes out of his way to meet
the African American women who are making it possible.

Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of these three groundbreaking women, whose efforts contributed greatly to the success of the early space program. It’s a tragedy that it took more than 50 years for this to come to the screen, but we have it now. The story structure follows a well-used formula to great effect, and the acting is perfect.

A-3, PG ♦ Race-based violence.


20th Century Women | CNS PHOTO/A24 FILMS

20th Century Women

It is 1979 in Santa Barbara, California. Divorced mother and graphic artist Dorothea (Annette Bening) raises her 15- year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), in a large house where people come and go,
commune-style. When Dorothea believes that she and Jamie are not communicating, she asks boarders William (Billy Crudup) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), as well as Julie (Elle Fanning), Jamie’s best friend, to take her place in raising him. Dorothea is still there, of course, and she cares, but she is oddly disconnected in the confusing chaos of Jamie’s world.

Sexuality, female roles, and women’s identity drive this story that, at its heart, is vacuous, pessimistic, and oddly funny at times. The highlight of the film occurs when William tries to teach yoga to Dorothea. I really laughed. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the film from writer and director Mike Mills is how well he captures the era itself: the objectification of sex and the human person—and the ungenerous futures these characters choose, dictated by a transient culture.

There is very little freedom or authentic meaning in the lives of these 20th-century women.

A-3, R ♦ Sexual themes, partial nudity, language.


Fences | CNS PHOTO/PARAMOUNT

This cinematic interpretation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play (the sixth of the 10 he wrote about African American life in Pittsburgh) tells the story of Troy (Denzel Washington) and his wife, Rose (Viola Davis), both Oscar-nominated for their roles.

Set in 1955, Troy goes to work as a garbage man and, at the end of each day, shares a drink with his friend Jim (Stephen Henderson), where they discuss opportunities lost. Troy was married before, and his grown son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a struggling musician, comes by to ask for loans. Cory (Jovan Adepo) is the teen son of Troy and Rose, who wants to play college football. Troy, who almost made it to Major League Baseball, discourages his son at every turn.

Troy, who is at once loving and bullying, talks too much. The script could have lost a page or two of dialogue and would not have been missed in the screen adaptation. Viola Davis, as the faithful wife and mother, shines and leaves Denzel soundly in the cinematic dust in terms of performance. Henderson, as Troy’s closest friend, is very good, too.

A-3, PG-13 ♦ Mature themes, language, an episode of domestic violence.