Octavia Spencer

Hidden Figures

There’s been a lot of talk of “making America great again.” At this point I’m sickened at the mention of the phrase, which is nothing more than a dog-whistle for white nationalists and racists. America has always been comprised of great people, even if their shameful treatment at America’s hands did not reflect their greatness. Making America great again mustn’t involve returning to an era where diversity and equality were completely ignored. Films like Hidden Figures are necessary now more than ever, a reminder of how far we’ve come in our recognition of things like wage equality, and an example of art as an informative teaching tool. The climate fostered by the new administration is not one conducive to artistry, but as long as we make our voices heard and support films like Hidden Figures, these stories will continue being told.

The film gives a biographical account of pioneering African American mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, No Good Deed), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer, Bad Santa 2), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, Moonlight); three women who were integral to NASA’s early efforts at putting a man in space. Now we have terms like ‘intersectionality’ to describe the ways in which multiple forms of discrimination conflate with one another, but during the Jim Crow era in which these brilliant women found themselves – no one particularly cared about the disparities they faced. They were more likely to be resented than valued for their intellect, but still they pressed on.

Visually, the film was vibrant, its cinematography harkening back to a dichotomous time in our history, the bright veneer and genteel wholesomeness of poodle skirts and milkshakes belying an ugly reality of discrimination and brutality. Pharell’s score grounded the film and kept it humming along, while supporting turns from Kevin Costner (Criminal) and Kirsten Dunst (The Two Faces of January) rounded out a notable cast. I don’t typically go for the “feel good” movies, but for once I enjoyed a heartwarming story.

The three stars have wonderful camaraderie and chemistry with each other, and themes of sisterhood and solidarity are prevalent throughout the film. I was inspired by the protagonists’ unapologetic confidence and brilliance.Through sheer excellence Katherine forced a seat at the table, her calculations proving critical to NASA’s quest to put an American in space. Their story is a thoroughly American one, an inspiring example for girls and boys alike. Boldly resilient, these women forged a path for all women and represent the best of America – which doesn’t need to be made great again. Grade: A

Fruitvale Station

Wow.  I don’t even know where to begin.  Nothing could have stopped me from seeing Fruitvale Station, for several reasons.  First, I adore Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle).  Secondly, I support young emerging Black talent.  I admire people who follow their dreams and aspire to greatness, particularly in filmmaking.  The director of this film, Ryan Coogler, is a young man on the rise and I support that.  Lastly, the events that gave rise to this film were a tragedy, and I’m tired of it being ‘open season’ on young Black men in America.  I don’t have a brother, but if I did he might look like Oscar Grant. Or Sean Bell. Or Emmett Till. Or Trayvon Martin.  The list goes on and on, and I’m fucking sick of it.  My soul weeps, and that’s not hyperbole.

In the wee hours of New Year’s Day 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant was a passenger on a BART train heading into Oakland, California.  He had been celebrating the holiday with friends, and they were returning home.  While aboard the train, a fight broke out, prompting a response from transit police.  They detained several passengers, including Grant and his friends.  In the course of this detainment, Grant was shot in the back by one of the officers.  Oscar was unarmed.  The bullet entered through his back and ricocheted back into his body, piercing his lung.  By 10:00 AM on New Year’s Day, Oscar Grant was dead.  The movie begins with the actual footage of this crime, a chilling moment that is not dramatized until the movie’s final act.  Fruitvale Station, so named for that fateful transit stop, examines the last day of Oscar’s life.

You cannot divorce the movie from its larger societal context, particularly in light of George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal.  Other than their skin color, the similarity between Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant is that they embody the frustration and futility that engulfs so many young Black men in America.  Over the course of the film we see that Oscar is an average young man.  He loves his daughter immensely.  He argues with his girlfriend, and they make up.  He loves his mother and his family, but like many young Black men, he is frustrated with his circumstances.  He has made some mistakes in the past, but he is hopeful and earnest in his desire to change for the better.  Desiring a new start for a new year, he wants to stop selling weed, and we see him make incremental changes in his life to that effect.  It is this flawed ‘everyman’ quality that makes him so relatable.  We are all playing the hand we were dealt, and we’re all trying to get better.

It is particularly poignant to watch his life unfold, only to know that it will be cut short very soon.  There’s an air of dread and foreboding that hangs over the movie, and even the joyful moments are painful, because we know that these moments are fleeting.  His tasks are mundane, but there is something refreshingly authentic about the way Coogler and Jordan brought Oscar to life.  He was immediately humanized, and we see that despite his shortcomings (previous brush with the law, moments of angry frustration), he was a beautiful spirit.  I always say that people are complex.  Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things.  The haunting thing about the movie and about Oscar Grant’s life in general, is that it is a story of promise unfulfilled.

Fruitvale Station won prizes at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals, and it’s easy to see why.  Jordan is a revelation, and continues to impress with both his versatility and a rare ability to endear himself to audiences.  Octavia Spencer (The Help) is featured as Oscar’s mother, and you know this woman.  Either she is your mother, or your aunt or your friend’s mother – but you know this woman.  She carries a quiet and loving demeanor, a firm but gentle hand.  Black women are tasked with raising sons in a world that is at once fascinated by and fearful of that which they don’t understand.  As we see Oscar interact with children, his peers, strangers of different races (some of whom are White), and even a stray animal – we see that his humanity shone through.  It is this same sense of humanity that unites us all, if we could just cut through the bullshit and get to it.

I think Fruitvale Station will prove to be a seminal movie that very much captures a time in American history where we are at a proverbial crossroads.  It’s 2013 now, and the officer that murdered Oscar Grant has been tried, convicted and released, all within a four-year span.  I don’t know whether to laugh mirthlessly at that absurdity or cry about it.  As human beings, we need to figure out what unites us rather than what divides us, and we have to cling to that with every ounce of strength we have left.  What is about young and Black and male that threatens us?  Examination of this question is the difference between life and death for so many people, and the answer has to start to matter to more than just Black people.  It has to matter to all of us.  Grade: A+