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Hidden Figures •••••

the_official_poster_for_the_film_hidden_figures_2016Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
Director: Theodore Melfi
Screenplay: Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG
Running Time: 127 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2017


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We’re introduced to three African American women stranded on the road in 1960’s Virginia. They are “computers” – women who perform computations for NASA’s space program. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) performs computations for the Mercury program. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) works as an engineer in the wind tunnels for the Mercury. And Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) acts as a supervisor for the other computing women, all of whom are Black.

Goble has been reassigned to work on the trajectories for the upcoming manned-flights of the Mercury program. She is dismissed by the other mathematicians because she is a woman, and a Black woman at that. Among her many challenges is the fact that the restrooms in the facility are segregated. And the only “colored” rest room for women is across the campus. She frequently has to run a half mile to use the ladies’ room – taking her work with her.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Meanwhile, Mary diagnoses a problem in the experimental space capsule’s heat shields, inspiring her to pursue an engineering degree. She convinces a judge to grant her permission to attend night classes at an all-white school. Dorothy learns that a huge new IBM computer will replace her co-workers. She sneaks into the computer room and successfully operates the machine. At the library she is scolded for visiting the whites-only section on computer programming. She teaches herself Fortran and is promoted to supervise the programming department, arranging for her women co-workers to be transferred there.

There aren’t many movies featuring women in technology, let alone women of color. Most of our images of engineers and scientists are of young men (see The Social Network). What is marvelous about this film is that it features three such women. They not only have to face gender stereotypes, but also battle racial divides.

The common trope in films dealing with race is that there is a white benefactor who lifts the African American up to where they belong. We see this in such films as The Blind Side, 42, and Race. But in Hidden Figures we’re witness to women who deal with their stereotyped roles head on and fend for themselves. It’s a refreshing change.

I was moved to tears watching Mary stand before a judge and plead her case to be allowed into an all-white community college. I know people who have had to fight for what they have earned. But they deal with a level playing field. Mary has the deck stacked against her. She not only has to change the mind of the white judge who blocks her way into school, but that of her militant husband who believes that violence is the only answer. Hidden Figures delivers three powerful examples of women overcoming prejudice on their own terms.

You’re absolutely right, Greg. Hidden Figures shows the shattering of two barriers, gender and race, in the early 1960s. I had never heard this true story of these three remarkable women, and I’m ashamed of either myself, or the system in which I was raised that suppressed this story, or both. These three heroes won my heart and earned my deepest respect. Like Jackie Robinson in 42, they knew that breaking barriers required them to take the high road when encountering inevitable prejudice and pushback. Their lives and careers were complex, difficult, way-paving and inspiring to say the least.

There may not have been any overt White helpers per se, but one cannot overlook the open-mindedness of people who assisted or supported these women’s efforts. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) deserves kudos in his supervisory role, helping Katherine Goble adjust to her new position and even taking a sledgehammer to the “whites only” restroom sign. The judge who bends an existing exclusionary rule also helps Mary get the education she seeks. There almost have to be people in the majority race who step up to do the right thing in the service of our heroes. Having said that, I agree that this film more than most others we’ve seen emphasizes the independent nature of our heroes’ quest to break their barriers.

We see some good mentoring and leadership in Dorothy’s character. She recognizes that the world is changing and that computing machines are the next big thing. So she learns the FORTRAN computing language and teaches it to her staff. So, when the machine finally work, and the management is looking for programmers, Dorothy is ready with 30 women trained to go.

I liked Hidden Figures very much. I often look for the ‘seams’ in a movie where the structure shows through. But I was so engrossed in the story that the seams fell away. We have three different and connected hero’s journeys – and each got ample screen time. The movie is inspirational to women and people of color, but it also shines a bright light on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Women and minorities are often left behind in the STEM world, and I think Hidden Figures will inspire a new generation of engineers. I give Hidden Figures 5 out of 5 Reels.

Scott, we often look for transformation in our heroes, but sometimes the heroes transform others instead. Katherine showed that she could do a job as well as any white man. In so doing she changed the culture of NASA to be more inclusive. Dorothy broke barriers by becoming the first black woman to be a supervisor at NASA. And Mary changed the educational system to allow blacks into their community college. In each case the transformation was on society as a whole, rather than in the heroes. I give these three women 5 out of 5 Heroes.

It’s hard to find good mentors, and Hidden FIgures is no different. Each of these women had to forge onward using their own skills and intelligence. But they did it essentially alone. When you’re the first to arrive in the “special world” there often isn’t someone there to act as a mentor. We did witness some good mentoring in Dorothy and her team of ‘computers.’ So I can only muster 2 Mentor points.

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All your praise directed at Hidden Figures is right on the mark, Greg. These brave, remarkable women did what society’s best heroes do, namely, set out on a journey that will bring them pain and resistance from others, defying social conventions that need defying. This movie deserves strong consideration for Best Picture in 2016. I also give it 5 Reels out of 5.

As with other way-pavers and barrier-breakers, these Hidden Figures are both transformed and transforming. We talk about heroes being both the source and the target of transformation in our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains. These women grow in their courage and resilience, and they have no doubt (and will no doubt) inspire generations of historically oppressed individuals to reach for the stars, both literally and figuratively. I give our heroes 5 Hero points out of 5.

There is mentoring going on in this movie but as we’ve pointed out, this film emphasizes the fierce independence of these women. Yes, they got help of course, but their success derived mostly from their own innate talent and indomitable spirit. I’ll award 3 mentor points out of 5 for the subtle ways that our Hidden Figures received little nudges of help behind the scenes.

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Manchester by the Sea ••••1/2

manchester_by_the_seaStarring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenplay: Kenneth Lonergan
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, can’t you see that it’s time to review Manchester by the Sea?

It’s the end of the Oscar year and about time for a serious movie. Let’s recap.

We meet Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman who lives in Boston and whose job is to fix the plumbing and electrical problems of the tenants in several apartment buildings. Lee appears to be a loner and gets into occasional bar fights. Yet for the most part, he is kind and gentle. One day he gets a telephone call telling him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died.

Lee travels from Boston to his hometown of Manchester to meet with friends and family of Joe’s. It seems Joe has left behind a small boat, a house, and a son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). While Lee attends to Joe’s funeral needs, he stops by the lawyer’s to check on Joe’s will. Since Joe had a degenerative heart condition, he made sure all his affairs were in order. Lee is surprised beyond words when he learns that Joe has made him Patrick’s guardian. Joe has left enough money for Lee to move from Boston and take residence in his home. But Lee doesn’t want this new responsibility and is strangely opposed to moving back to Manchester.

Greg, Manchester by the Sea is one of those rare movies that takes its time telling its story and developing its characters. There are scenes that don’t seem necessary yet speak volumes about the kind of people we are getting to know, as when Lee Chandler misunderstands his nephew Patrick and almost inadvertently hurts him with his car. Scenes are also extended to include seemingly superfluous dialogue, yet in this movie even small talk looms large in revealing character details.

Casey Affleck is highly deserving of all the kudos he is receiving for his performance here. In truth, almost all the performances here are dynamic and convincing. We see the pain in these characters’ eyes and we care deeply about how their messy predicaments can get resolved. This movie pulls no punches about what Richard Rohr calls “the tragic sense of life”. There are no villains here; life’s difficult circumstances crop up and grab our hero by the throat, forcing him to make decisions and take risks. This is compelling drama, portrayed with heartfelt realism.

I couldn’t agree more. This is a story with no winners. Death leaves Lee holding the bag and it doesn’t make his life easy. He is hesitant to move back to Manchester and we’re left wondering why. Then, through a series of flashbacks, we’re shown that he once had a family in Manchester. While things weren’t perfect, they were pretty good. And then one night he accidentally burned down his house, killing his three young children. Afterwards, he, his wife, and the town, could not forgive him. He is forced to leave Manchester and take up residence in Boston doing odd jobs.

When he is given the chance to return to Manchester, he at first rejects this “call to adventure.” He doesn’t want to try and make it all work. But as he becomes more attached to his nephew and the town he left, we see him attempt to find work. But he is turned away. The town still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten what he did. Ultimately, he finds a middle ground. Patrick will be adopted by friends, and he will regain his full birthright at the age of 21. Lee will relocate to a closer job in Boston so he can be a part of Patrick’s life. It’s not a Hollywood happy ending. It’s not what anyone really wants. But in the circumstances that Lee, Patrick and Manchester find themselves, it is the best that can be done.

Lee desperately needs a mentor to help him with his life decisions, especially regarding what to do with caring for Patrick. This movie shows us how agonizing life’s difficult circumstances can be when person lacks help from a trusted mentor figure. Lee’s older brother Joe, now deceased, probably served as a quasi-mentor figure for Lee, but now Joe’s gone. Lee’s parents are pretty useless in helping Lee, his vitriolic mother especially.

Lee is left in the role of mentor for his nephew and finds himself ill-equipped to perform in this role, mostly because Lee himself hasn’t properly come to terms with his past. He’s an emotionally shattered man who has shut down. In the end, Lee finds a compromise regarding his nephew, an arrangement that is far from perfect but is the best Lee can do, especially considering the fact that he lacks any kind of mentoring.

I think you’re right again, Scott. This movie proves that you don’t need a mentor for the hero. But there are consequences for the mentorless soul. The hero goes looking for answers but finds none. The hero looks for solutions but finds none. This is a story of a man thrown into a position of responsibility, but a responsibility that he cannot handle. He does his best, but his best is not good enough.

Manchester by the Sea is a heart-rending story of a man looking for redemption, but finds none. It is an honest story about a man fractured by his own guilt. The story unfolds, not slowly, but deliberately. Each scene takes its time showing us the events of a man trying to cope with the responsibility that he didn’t ask for. We want Lee to succeed. We even need him to succeed. But he won’t succeed. It’s not the story we want to see. But in life, it’s often the story we’re dealt. I give Manchester by the Sea 5 out of 5 Reels for telling a story that is as honest as a movie can be.

Lee Chandler appears to be a decent fellow in the beginning of the film. He serves his tenants and keeps to himself. His one vice is that he seems to pick fights in bars – even preferring them to advances by attractive women. Although he doesn’t want the responsibility of taking care of his orphaned nephew, we witness him doing his best. This is the hero within him. He tries. He tries very hard. And in the end he cannot overcome the tragedy that he brought upon himself. He is guilt-ridden and broken. He is the tragic hero who gets 4 out of 5 Heroes from me.

As you point out, Scott, there are no mentors in this film. And that is part of what Manchester by the Sea is about. Lee is mentorless at a time when he could most use a mentor. He has no champion. And in the end, he loses to circumstance. If he had a mentor, things might have gone differently. It seems unfair to award this film zero mentor points since it succeeded in telling this tale without one. But as there is no mentor, 0 Mentor points is all I can offer.

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Manchester by the Sea is a heart-achingly realistic portrayal of a damaged man doing his best to cope with a family emergency. This movie pulls no emotional punches; it tells a tough story and does it with searing truth. Casey Affleck does a phenomenal job portraying Lee Chandler and deserves strong Oscar consideration. I can’t think of an actor who is more gifted at showing pain through his eyes and nonverbal behavior. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

The heroic path of Lee Chandler is fascinating and unconventional from the standpoint of the classic hero’s journey. He is independent to a fault, resisting efforts to bond with people who could grow close to him and help him with much-needed healing. There are no villains, only inner-demons to conquer. Lee’s story is hard to watch at times yet ultimately redemptive. I award his character 4 Hero points out of 5.

While there is no mentor for poor, suffering Lee Chandler, he does nevertheless serve as a mentor figure for his nephew Patrick. How effective Lee is in this role is open to debate. Patrick needs a mentor almost as badly as Lee does, and we get the sense that the loss of Joe has created a big mentorship void in the entire family. Ironically, the conspicuous absence of mentorship in this film gives it prominence. Thus I give the mentorship in the film a total of 2 Mentor points out of 5.

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