Hidden Figures: Worthy Subjects, Uneven Direction

Directed by Theodore Melfi
20th Century Fox, 127 minutes, PG (racist themes)

Want to blow your mind? Take out you cell phone and open any app. If it seems slow to load, chill out. No matter how long it takes, it will be 32,600 times speedier than the IBM computers used to send Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. Yep—that little gadget in your hands has roughly 1,300 times more processing power than NASA had. Back in those days, a “computer” might be an IBM, or it might be a math whiz wielding a protractor. Someone like Katharine Johnson, though probably not—Ms. Johnson is black. But without her, it would have taken NASA longer to catch up the Soviet Union and astronauts would have been sacrificed in the process.

Hidden Figures is a clever title for a film about three unsung black sheroes whose brains supercharged the space program: mathematician/computer Katharine Goble Johnson (Taraji Henson), mathematician/supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). After a prologue in which we see Goble as a child math savant, the action shifts to 1961. The Soviets had already beaten the U.S. in the satellite race with its 1957 launch of Sputnik and NASA is again red-faced, as the Ruskies have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space. The heat is on Langley Research Center to respond, but the science simply isn’t there and that includes the IBM, which no one can figure out how to get into the building, let alone use. Space Task Force head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wants answers and he’s willing to bring talent over from the segregated lab to get them. Enter Katherine Goble.

Henson does a very fine job of displaying the awkwardness, the passive-aggressive racism, and the patronizing attitudes she encounters as the only black person in a literal sea of white—both the faces and the ubiquitous white shirts of serious people in those days. She is forced to coauthor every study with chief engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) even though he’s a racist/sexist jerk and she’s way smarter than he, and to endure the racism-posing-as-maternalism of supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirstin Dunst). Plus, there’s the logistical problem that Langley is in Jim Crow Virginia, so the simple act of using the toilet involves a half-mile round trip jaunt to the segregated facility. Her friends Mary and Dorothy have their own burdens: Mary needs to get into a whites-only school to finish courses to become a full-fledged engineer; Dorothy is supervising an entire unit, but doesn’t bear the title or pay-grade commensurate with her duties.

Some films are claustrophobic and need to get out more; Hidden Figures is hampered by needing to stay closer to home. Because of the way the film is structured, we pretty much know we are watching a triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity tale in which our three figures will do marvelous things. I understand the impulse to flesh out the characters through back stories, but there are marked tonal shifts when we watch Katherine being wooed by Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), Dorothy playing matchmaker, or Mary sitting in a classroom (which didn’t actually happen). There’s a sense that Melfi didn’t trust that the central narrative was strong enough, so he decided to “pad” with Hollywood tricks: romance, witty banter, biographical invention, and a repeated segregation trope that (alas!) becomes more of a “gag.” I could have also done without Hans Zimmer’s score, which is so overbearing that it sounds like he wants to be John Williams when he grows up.

Luckily the story can stand on its merits and the acting is very strong. Henson plays Johnson with a controlled balance of geekiness, kindness, and determination; and Ms. Monáe shows she’s more than a pop star--she portrays Jackson as a simmering ball of fierceness. Dunst dons her Janus face with aplomb, and even Costner is subtle. (Maybe Hollywood has figured out he’s a better character actor than a lead.) Oddly, the weakest link is Spencer—though she’s the one who garnered an Oscar nomination. She’s perfectly competent; it’s just that we’ve seen her do the same things many times: the wry humor, bulldog determination, furtive assertiveness, and that glance that might be bemusement or might be a challenge. Her arched eyebrow expression rivals that of Mr. Spock!

To set the record straight, not all that you see on the screen is literally true. The scenes between John Glenn and Goble/Johnson are greatly exaggerated, and Mary Jackson was not on a temporary assignment with NASA pending completion of her engineering degree—she already had one, was made permanent in 1953, and assumed the title of engineer in 1958. Most egregiously, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to a supervisory role in 1949 and, in 1958, was made part of an integrated NASA unit. And there’s the very odd decision to invent composite characters such as Al Harrison, Paul Stafford, and Vivian Mitchell.

It’s telling that a film dealing with racism is rated PG. Director Melfi is white and my take is that he, like his Vivian Mitchell composite, wanted to do the right thing but couldn’t quite get out of his own way. The film’s Disneyesque triumphalism diminishes the very real achievements of three remarkable women. In the name of overcoming racism, though, Melfi whitewashes it. By all means see Hidden Figures. Everyone should celebrate Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan. Be wary of the hype, though. This film lifts off, but it never quite achieves orbit.
Rob Weir  


Even Dogs in the Wild a Thrilling Twisty Mystery

Even Dogs in the Wild (2016 U.S. publication)
By Ian Rankin
Orion, 352 pages.

Scottish novelist Ian Rankin is the master of what I call the "twisty mystery," the ones that take various turns and have more red herrings than a trawler crashing into a dye factory. This is Rankin's twentieth book in which grizzled Detective Inspector (DI) John Rebus plays a central role, though now he's retired, bored, and even crankier. But you won't need to have ever read a page of Rankin to appreciate the part Rebus plays in Even Dogs in the Wild. The title, by the way, comes from a song line from Associates, a defunct Scottish punk/New Wave band. Dogs factor into the story, though probably not in the way you imagine as you are reading.

"Not in the way you imagine" is exactly the quality that makes Rankin a master of his craft. This murder mystery centers on several Edinburgh murder victims, the highest profile of which is Lord David Menzies Minton, a retired lawyer and a member of the House of Lords. (There's a subtle Scots joke in this: Menzies is a common Scottish name, but it's also a large corporation, a retailer, and a news agency.) As in the United States, bump off a no-account and the nation yawns; kill a bigwig and the powers that be stir. Two Scottish Police districts investigate, but so too does Gartcosh, a Scottish investigative campus that's allegedly going to bring crime solving into the 21st century. They send a special six-member unit headed by the secretive and obnoxious Ricky Compston, who commandeers office space and throws his considerable weight about. Call this one a computers-and-special-ops-meets old-fashioned legwork mystery. Rebus finagles a detective consultant role, thanks to his protégé DI Siobhan Clarke. (That's shee-von' for non-Scots speakers!) That's also welcome news to DI Malcolm Fox, who works across town, was also tutored by Rebus, and is good friends (but more?) with Clarke. Here's what anyone has to go on: Minton's murderer left a note: 'I'M GOING TO KILL YOU FOR WHAT YOU DID." The m.o. is similar to that of the murder of lottery winner Michael Tolland, but he wasn't a guy who moved in Minton's circles. Even stranger, (semi-) retired crime boss Morris "Big Ger" Cafferty also got a note like that, and someone just fired a 9mm pistol through his and narrowly missed him. (That gun caliber is unusual in Scotland.)  Cafferty suspects the Starks, a Glasgow syndicate, might have something to do with it, or perhaps local punk-with-ambition Darryl Christie, but the style doesn't mesh with either of them.

Rankin throws lots of stuff at us: police in-fighting, secrecy in high places, unholy alliances, missing people, family relationships, pub life, autopsy scenes, shake-downs, and (yes) even dogs. It's a thrilling read that I consumed in a single snowy evening and it left me considerably more satisfied than the prospect of shifting snow in the morning! The book, on a deeper level, is commentary on dying worlds (that of Rebus and Big Ger), but new ones not yet born. There are numerous hints that it's also commentary on Scotland's post-independence vote and, by extension, visions and relationships that may not be as dead as they seem. Rankin certainly seems to be setting himself up for a series reboot with Clarke and Fox, but even if you never read another Rankin novel, this one's as tasty as a fine single malt.

Rob Weir


UMass: The Place for Pioneer Valley Art in February

Most art fans visiting the Pioneer Valley make a beeline to the Big Three: the Smith College Museum of Art, the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, or Amherst College's Mead Art Museum. If the kiddies are along, a stop at the Eric Caryle Museum is de rigueur. It may come as a shock–and no slight is intended to those other fine institutions–but the place to be for February art treasures is the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Three fine shows now grace gallery walls.

Run; don't walk, to see Direct Action Comics: Politically Engaged Graphic Novels. And make haste—it's hanging in the Herter Art Gallery and ends on February 22. Why such a short run for a show that only opened on February 2? The Herter Gallery is designed to attract students, their work, and their curation, hence the turnover is quick.UMass Comparative Literature Professor Chris Couch curates this show, along with recent UMass graduate Alex Chautin,* and I do not exaggerate when I say that it's unlikely you will see a better exhibit on graphic novels this year.

Think comics are just for kids? You're decades out of date and need to see what you've been missing. There's very little about this exhibit that would be of interest to or appropriate for children. It is exactly as advertised: agit-prop, identity formation, and social justice art–mass produced, to be sure, but well out of the mainstream. You will encounter now iconic names in this exhibit–Vaughan Bodé, Max Brooks, Will Eisner, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman–but also many newer names. What links all of them is a deep commitment to telling the stories of socially disempowered or marginalized people and groups. In that spirit, one of the first things that you encounter is Gary Hallgren's iconic image of Nancy and Sluggo discovering that the social construction of gender begins with what's in the undies.

If you've wondered what happened to politically charged art in an age in which rock music sells beer, film is paint-by-the-numbers, and theatre operates too close to the margins to take chances, Direct Action Comics will direct you to where provocation is alive, well, and deeply grounded in history. You'll find recent musings and manifestations of the Industrial Workers of the World, Emma Goldman, World War II Japanese internment, the civil rights movement, and Margaret Sanger. I'd make the case that there are very few one-volume surveys of Latino history as good as Lalo Alcarez and Ilan Stavans' graphic book Latino USA. You can also discover the deep history and roots of modern identity movements in works such as Wimmen's Comix, Howard Cruse's groundbreaking gay-themed Wendel, Art Spiegelman's Fagin the Jew, and other such works. No oppressor gets off the hook, and that includes the Islamist butchers who attacked Charlie Hebdo. Pay attention to the labels; they are informative and engagingly written. A final note: I've heard people say that young people don't read anymore. Wrong! They devour graphic novels and they can astound you with what they see in each drawing. Educators now speak of the need to teach visual learning. About time!

Tela McInerey
Vonnegut, "Double Wedding"
You'll have even less time to take in Stories: Past, Present, and Future, which is installed in the Hampden Gallery on the main floor of the Hampden Dining Common in the Southwest Residential area of UMass. It closes on February 17. This gallery is generally devoted to the works of local artists–in this case, eight women associated with the Zea Mays Printmaking Collaborative in my town of Florence, MA (a section of Northampton). All eight artists intrigue, but I was partial to a video installation by curator Lynn Peterfreund that stitched together hundreds of still images and animated them in a short, but mesmerizing pastiche. I also liked the work of Anne Beresford, who takes copies of old engravings—for instance, a 16th century Italian print of the Muse of Beauty–and enhances them with overlays of her own designs and slashes of color Nanette Vonnegut (daughter of Kurt), whose puckish sense of humor is on display; and the deeply interior monoprints of Tekla McInerney.

The current star attraction at UMass, though, is Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker's Tales of Slavery and Power, which is on display at the University Museum of Contemporary Art inside the Fine Arts Center through April 30. There are few contemporary artists that inspire as much respect and/or ire as Kara Walker (b. 1969). Hers is a no-apologies-no-punches-pulled look at slavery and its legacy. Her images are often sexualized–to make a point, says she and her admirers; to sensationalize, charge her critics. She usually paints in silhouettes, her large dark figures suggesting the tragedy, but also the hidden power lurking within black bodies. Once again, it's open to interpretation whether the silhouettes deracialize, are forms of reverse racism, are screams of black anguish, or are in-your-face displays of black rage and revenge. In the UMass exhibit, though, there's little doubt that several of Walker's images are meant to challenge white constructions of race and bury white sins. She takes on the idea that the Civil War was about preserving Union by superimposing large black bodies on woodcuts from Harper's Weekly's Pictorial History of the Civil War series. Those bodies—in arrays ranging from detached observation to immediate peril–literally change the frame through which we view the war. In essence, it's no longer a white spin on what matters.

Even more powerful are her scenes from The Emancipation Approximation, the very title suggesting she intends to challenge traditional narratives. And challenge she does. She uses the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan–in which Zeus assumed the form of a white swan to rape and impregnate the beautiful mortal Leda–but Walker's Leda is Everyblackwoman, and the master class the white swans. We see Leda being violated in various ways by whites–either directly or as voyeurs. She also hurls a potent challenge to the very essence of race. The same whites that passed anti-miscegenation laws are, in fact, the ones who made mockery of those laws–a point she makes by superimposing black heads on white swans–an "approximation" of emancipation indeed.

I don't buy the slams on Walker, but I sure can see why she makes a lot of people–black and white–nervous. She dabbles in minstrelsy and that's always a landmine-filled terrain. There is also an overt sexiness in her work that skirts the border between exploitation and appropriation. As for whites, her work is a one-woman destruction of the Lost Cause myth. Plus, it's never comfortable to revisit the sins of one's forefathers–especially when the evening news shows that Old Massah is more alive than dead.

Rob Weir

*Alex Chautin is a former student of mine. I'm a bit biased, but I think Alex's work stands on its own and I had little part of advancing his expertise in graphic novels, though he claims I did turn him on to Industrial Workers of the World graphics. I'll take that with a, "Wow! Cool!"


Strange History: From the Bathroom to the Classroom?

Jay Newman, editor
Portable Press, 416 pages
★★ ½

Have you ever seen Chuck Shepherd's quirky "New of the Weird" columns? If so, you can imagine the content of Strange History. In editor Jay Newman's words, it's a "smorgasbord of oddities: kings, queens, commoners, criminals, gladiators, aliens, ghosts, monsters…." You can add to that list: anecdotes, bloopers, origin stories, fads, riddles, and descriptions of made-up languages. Newman marshals a bevy of writers collectively known as the Bathroom Readers' Institute. Give credit for truth in advertising; this is indeed the sort of book one might find residing in the loo nestled amidst the extra TP–a collection of breezy selections meant to be read in short, non-taxing snippets. So is there any reason to pay attention to it? Maybe.

Like all such projects, this one is less than the sum of its parts, but the bits and pieces are individually delightful. I used to mine books like this when I was a public school teacher for bizarre little curiosities to spring upon students to give their minds a break and enhance my reputation for being unpredictable. Alas, they were often the things students remembered long after they brain dumped the important stuff. Well, at least I taught them something!

There is no rhyme or reason to the structure of Strange History and that's part of its charm. Did you know that Mao Zedong was a librarian before he was a revolutionary, or that Idi Amin cooked for the British army before he terrorized Uganda? You can learn this from Strange History, as well as the first jobs of other famous and infamous people. The book makes no pretense of being anything other than random facts and factoids. I made my way through this book with an eye toward categorizing detail into categories of potentially useful versus mere trivia.

For example, a sociology or popular culture instructor might find it useful to note that elders have been complaining about youth since at least 427 B.C., or that fads have always been edgy. How about crotchless tunics in medieval England, phrenology, Gerber's attempt to sell baby food for adults, 16th century tooth dyeing, or hiring professional "hermits" to reside upon one's estate? Students might find it reassuring to consider that the present has no monopoly over bad decision-making. Did you know that the first person to add sugar to chewing gum (1869) was a dentist? Or, more poignantly, that Adolph Hitler told the first Polish jokes? There are loads of intriguing things for computer scientists discussing computers before computing, including a mechanical wooden robot that dates to fourth century B.C. Greece. Theater and literature lessons can be spiced by all manner of anecdotes, such as a long list of the misfortunes that befell those directing or acting in Macbeth, a list of one-legged actors, the possible origins of werewolf tales, or the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (Either the 17th century German alchemist Jonathan Dippel, or the 18th century Italian naturalist Spallanzani are good suspects for the latter.) The book also contains tons of origin theories, including theories about unicorns, the evolution of King Arthur tales, how zoos emerged from the private menageries of aristocrats, and how Druids gave us the phrase "tying the knot" for newlyweds.     

On the other hand, when would we ever need a recipe for making shrunken heads? Why should we care that TripAdvisor.com travelers consider Brussels the world's most boring city? (Did any of them drink the beer there?) What can we learn from Joey Mellen, who drilled a hole in his own head in an attempt to achieve a perpetual high, other than the fact that he was an idiot? Do we need a list of lame insults gleaned from the Internet?  

In short, Strange History is a book containing gems and garbage. Maybe the bathroom is where it ought to reside, but I suspect teachers, barroom orators, and trivia aficionados will find plenty of useful things. A personal favorite came from a list of alleged presidential deathbed utterances. James Buchanan supposedly proclaimed, "History will vindicate my memory." When you consider that many scholars consider Buchanan the worst president in U. S. history, you could use that remark to teach the concept of hubris.

Rob Weir