Live By Night (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 

Hear, my child, and accept my words,
that the years of your life may be many.

I have taught you the way of wisdom;

I have led you in the paths of uprightness.

When you walk, your step will not be hampered;
and if you run, you will not stumble. Keep hold of instruction; do not let go;
guard her, for she is your life.

 Do not enter the path of the wicked,
and do not walk in the way of evildoers.

Proverbs 4:10-14

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked,

for you reap whatever you sow.

Galatians 6:7

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Joe brashly dares to seduce his boss’s girlfriend. (c) Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck’s new film based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, which he stars in as well as directs, will remind some viewers of those old classic gangster films starring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Humphrey Bogart. The main character is an anti-hero, capable of great evil, and yet we root for him because he also has some redeeming qualities. Live by Night has some differences, one of them being that this is the only gangster film, as far as know, in which the Ku Klux Klan is one of the many opponents of the main character.

The brief prelude begins on the bloody battlefields of World War One. Narrating his story, Joe Coughlin (Affleck) sums up his war experience, “I signed up to fight in the war. I went away a soldier, I came home an outlaw.” This despite his being the son of Boston Police Deputy Superintendent Thomas Coughlin (Gleeson), a rarity in the film in that he is an honest cop. Apparently, the horrible things Joe had been forced by stupid officers to do in battle proved stronger than the influence of a just father. His father tries to reform him, saying at one point, “What you put out into the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict.”

However, disdaining authority, the young man is constantly immersed in trouble, working for a tough gangster whose brassy blond girlfriend Emma Gold (Sienna Miller) he finds irresistible. Of course, the boss discovers their affair and would have beat the transgressor to death had not his father, backed by a squad of policemen, shown up in the alley in time. Emma disappears, presumably killed, and Joe is sent away to prison.

When he is released, he realizes he must leave Boston, so he makes a deal with crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) to go to Florida and take charge of the gang’s illegal rum business there. Prohibition is still in force, and Florida is on the rise. He takes with him Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), who becomes his devoted henchman. In steamy Tampa, he connects with police chief Irving Figgis (Chris Cooper) and in the Cuban sector known as Ybor City, with rum runner Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel). He makes deals—with the Chief to restrain his activities to certain areas and thus avoid turf warfare with other criminals; and with the Cuban to go into partnership, Esteban providing contacts for bringing in the rum, and Joe his Boston contact with Pescatore providing a wide market for the rum.

Joe falls in love with Esteban’s beautiful sister Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana), beginning a steamy relationship that eventually will produce a daughter. He also finds himself embroiled in a battle with an unexpected group, the local KKK, led by the arrogant R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher), the brother-in-law of local sheriff Irving Figgis. Pruitt hates Catholics as well as blacks, so Joe constitutes a double target—he is a “Papist,” and he has a girlfriend who is a black Cuban. There is a third reason—Joe is an Italian, and thus to WASPs Chief Figgis and his brother R.D. Pruit an eternal outsider.

Joe’s story weaves its way through history—the repeal of Prohibition, the growing interest in casinos, the rise of the KKK, and more. He ruthlessly defeats the KKK, but another battle he loses. He had begun to build a large casino because he sees that as a way to enrich himself and his boss legally, but a new opponent arises when Chief Figgis’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning), whom Joe had met before she had left town to pursue a career in Hollywood, returns, a broken drug addict. She had made it only as far as Las Vegas, after which her father had lost contact with her. In his bargaining with the Chief, Joe, able through his underworld contacts to locate her, had brought her back after the cop gave in to his demands. After her rehabilitation, Loretta became a popular evangelist, preaching so successfully against demon rum and gambling that Joe’s proposed casino is defeated by the city’s aroused citizenry.

The words of Joes’ father, “What you put out into the world will always come back to you, but never how you predict,” follow him, even when at a key moment following one of the bloodiest showdowns between rival gangs this side of the Godfather series, Joe decides to retire from crime and live a quiet life with Graciela and their daughter. Can such a man as Joe, capable of shooting a man across the table from him with no warning and no sense of regret, escape from his dark past? Ironically, “what come(s) back to you” is not a vengeful gang member, but just as devastating. In the last scene, we are left to ponder the nature of this man and the way such characters as he has been portrayed in crime films. Joe is a ruthless killer, and yet free of the racism of the time, and still possessing enough of a conscience to leave behind his lucrative criminal career.

Loretta had once said to him, “My father says there once was a good man in you.” When Joe replies, “We all find ourselves in lives we didn’t expect,” the evangelist in her cries out, “Repent. Repent. Repent. ” He does not do so, though as pointed out above, he tries to retire. Alas, when immersed in such evil, it is hard to walk away from the past. Joe as a father loving his daughter  reminds me of The Road to Perdition in which Tom Hank’s Michael Sullivan is a ruthless hit man who tries to keep his crime life secret from his young sons. If only as a young man, Joe had been like the son to whom Qoheleth, author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, makes his appeal in the above passage.

I enjoyed seeing Chris Cooper again, an actor I’ve admired ever since he played a union organizer in John Sayles’ masterpiece Matewan in 1987. He is wonderful as the police chief who does not accept bribes but still deals with criminals, and who is pushed over the edge of sanity by the tragic fate of his daughter. And Elle Fanning’s portrayal of the Chief’s tragic daughter ought to earn her an Oscar nod.

The film has not been well received by critics, but I still found it fascinating. I think the most valid charge against it is that the filmmakers tried to fit too much of the 400-page novel into one film, even though it runs a few minutes longer than most. This should have been either a TV miniseries or divided into a couple of films, so much happens in it over a period of several years. Still, as a portrait of a complex man unable to escape his past, it well illustrates the apostle Paul’s warning that we reap what we sow.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Feb. 2017 issue of VP.

The Road to Perdition (2002)

Reprinted from the Aug. 2002 VP.

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.

Our content rating (1-10): Violence 7; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the

               Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder

Exodus 20:12-13

In those days they shall no longer say:

‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,

and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

 But all shall die for their own sins;

the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set

 on edge.

 Jeremiah 31:29-30

 

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Sam Mendes first film following his acclaimed American Beauty transports us into a very different world from that of his earlier one. The time is the 1930’s when the power of gang mobs, enriching themselves with bootleg liquor, made the headlines and controlled many politicians and policemen. Paul Newman and Tom Hanks play against their usual good guy screen persona, portraying ruthless gangsters in an un-named city not within driving distance of Chicago. Paul Newman is John Rooney, gang boss, who loves Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as much as his own son Connor (Daniel Craig). Rooney raised the orphaned Michael and tutored him in his law-breaking way of violence. Michael is strong, whereas Connor is weak. The strongest part of the latter’s character is his hidden envy and resentment of Michael’s place in his father’s heart. Thus, Connor awaits the opportunity to strike at the usurper of his father’s affections. That opportunity arrives very early in the film.

Michael is married to Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is sadly under-utilized in the script), and the couple have two sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), about 13 years of age, and Peter, a few years younger. Both boys idolize their father, even though he is away so much that he has missed most of their growing up, almost always excusing himself from their school performances and athletic games. Neither has a clue as to what their father’s business is, Michael strictly segregating his life as a gang hit man from his private family life. Young Michael, however is determined to find out, hiding under the rear seat of his father’s car when the senior Sullivan sets out one rainy night on a job. Michael arrives at his destination, where he meets Connor, and the two go into a barn to confront several men. Young Michael watches with wide-eyed horror when Connor loses his temper and begins shooting the men. Michael Sr. disgustedly joins in, cold bloodedly dispatching any who are wounded.

The two killers discover that they have a witness, and are surprised that it is Michael. His father, making the boy promise that he will tell no one, assures the skeptical Connor that he need not fear anything. Connor is not so certain. When he tells Rooney what has happened, the latter is very angry with him for needlessly shedding blood, but reluctantly agrees that the potential problem of young Michael must be fixed. As much as he loves Michael and wishes Connor were like him, he chooses his own flesh and blood. The result is terrible tragedy for the Sullivans.

The two Michaels find themselves on the road, fleeing for their lives from a hired assassin hot on their trail. Maguire (Jude Law) works as a photography taking pictures of murder scenes, some of them turning out to be his own work, for his real money comes from the gangs that hire him to do their dirty work. During the Sullivans’ flight, which entails a visit to Chicago where Michael hopes to find protection from Al Capone’s chief lieutenant Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), to a string of bank robberies, to the home of a kindly farm couple, father and son for the first time become close. The boy cannot condone the crimes of his father, but the hit man is his father none-the-less.

The senior Michael’s biggest fear is not their implacable pursuer, who comes close to eliminating them a couple of times, but the strong aversion to seeing his son follow in his footsteps. He knows all too well what kind of a person he is, so he hopes that the terrible judgment of Exodus 20:5 (“for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation…”) will not descend upon his son. At the climax, there is a strange moment of grace, the dark film thus ending on a note of hope, similar to what Jeremiah wrote to his captive countrymen after their defeat by the Babylonians.

Some critics have noted that Tom Hanks might not have been the best choice to play such a cold-blooded character. The filmmakers must have realized this, as the script has Michael Sullivan killing guys that deserve their fate. This is like the Hollywood gangster of the old days, as played by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart: the audience’s sympathy is drawn to the bad guy so much that we root for him rather than the police out to get him. Still, we have to admire Tom Hanks the actor for taking on another role, as he did with Philadelphia, that goes against audience expectations. And to be paired with the legendary Paul Newman, whose presence brings quality to any film. This is one Road you want to take for the thrill of the ride, despite its destination.

Interesting touch: Young Michael in several scenes is reading one of those ten-cent Better Little Books about the Lone Ranger. This is the story of a good man who appears to be a bad man because of his mask. The boy is soon to learn that his father, who appears to be a good man, actually is one who kills in cold blood.

 

An Artist for MLK Day

This morning I just discovered the marvelous works of artist Brian Washington, which made me aware again of how little I know. His works are in the collections of several museums and famous people. Mr. Washington is an African American lawyer by profession, but a fine artist by avocation. Working in charcoal, he has created a series of works on the rise of blacks from sharecropping to freedom fighters. In all of them he has captured their patience and dignity as they rise above their current circumstances.

You can see his works at http://www.brianwashington.com/continual-struggle/works.

I especially urge you to click onto the Interactive Tour bar because it includes his comments on each picture and its background. This Tour is a great way to celebrate MLK Day, or to honor on any day, the brave women and men who pushed this country closer to Dr. King’s great Dream.

Now in his mid 30s and fighting a disease, here is a work he created when he was just 17!

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“Hurting a Nation” is this young man’s comment on how Liberty is crucified by those racists who persist in persecuting blacks. His collection called “The Continual Struggle” begins with share croppers and moves on the scenes of the brave women and men fighting for freedom and equality in the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these pictures brought to my mind memories of the brave souls I met and worked with when I participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Treat yourself to an inspiring experience by seeing this wonderful art collection.

A  Monster Calls (2016)

There might be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so beware of how far you read if you

don’t want any hints as to the conclusion.

 

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

I went about as one who laments for a mother,
bowed down and in mourning.

Psalm 35:14b

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12-year-old Conor faces the Monster that visits him while his mother is slowly dying of cancer. (c) Focus Features

Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who in 2012 gave us the wonderful, grace-filled disaster film The Impossible, returns in a very different film with A Monster Calls. His previous film was set amidst a tsunami that took over 230,000 lives in Southeast Asia. This one, based on screenwriter Patrick Ness’s own novel of the same name*, is more miniature in scope, dealing with the impending death of a mother and the anger of her son who does not want to give her up.

The film, set in England, begins with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) on the edge of a cliff near an old stone church and a huge yew tree. An earthquake has just destroyed the church, and deep fissures split the grounds. In a close-up, we see his hand holding onto that of what we assume is a woman’s. His grip is slipping, he lets go, and…he wakes up. It is a bad dream, one that keeps recurring throughout the film.

The next morning, he looks in upon his mother, still asleep, and fixes his own breakfast. Afterwards, when he returns to her room, bedridden Lizzy (Felicity Jones) talks about her wigs and a new chemotherapy treatment. When she says that he will not have to fix his own breakfast because his grandmother is coming, he is clearly not pleased. At school an older boy stares at him, and after class follows him with two friends, who watch as he beats up Conor.

That night as he is about to go to sleep, the numbers on his digital clock switch from 12:06 to 12:07. He hears a deep voice calling his name. The huge yew tree near the old church, which he can see at a distance from his bedroom window, shakes, slowly taking on a humanoid form, becoming a tree monster. The boy tells it to go away, but the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) grabs and carries him outside, telling him that he does not come around often, but that he will visit him again to tell him three stories, and that then Conor will tell a fourth. It will deal with truth, Conor’s truth about what he is most afraid of, and which he hides in his dreams. This is why he (Conor) has called out to him. When the Monster is gone, and Conor is back in his room, the floor is covered with leaves. Was this more than a bad dream?

Grandma does show up, and it is immediately apparent that her strictness does not set well with Connor. He keeps asserting that his Mum will soon be well after another treatment. When she tries to prepare him for what she sees as the inevitable result of the cancer, he angrily lashes out at her.

Later he has to move in with her, his anger over this and his mother’s illness erupting in a fury that causes him to destroy a room full of her possessions, the loss that hurts her the most being a beautiful heirloom, an antique grandfather clock. This destructive episode accompanies the Monster’s second story which ends with the Monster destroying the church.

Part of the boy’s feeling of loss erupting into anger is due to his divorced father (Toby Kebbell) returning for a short visit from Los Angeles where he has remarried and is raising a daughter. Conor wants him to stay, but he cannot, due to his American family and job. The promise that he will return in a couple of weeks, and that Conor can visit them at Christmas time is not consoling.

The Monster does return three times to tell the promised stories, but they are so dark and morally ambiguous (if not repugnant) that the boy is left frustrated and puzzled. There is no trace of the simple moral or inspirational lesson contained in most fairy tales. The first two stories are illustrated by water color animation, skillfully executed. We also wonder about them, though as each tale progresses, both Conor and we viewers begin to see their connection to the boy and his situation, especially when Mum tells her son, after the chemo treatment fails, that her doctors are going to try a treatment using a medicine extracted from yew trees. The fearful boy has been pleading all along for Mum to be cured, but as the stories progress, the Monster tells him that he has come not for his Mum’s sake, but for Conor’s.

Though the intended audience for the film and book is children, this dark tale is very different from such cheery tales as Trolls or Sing. Adults should take seriously the PG-13 rating and pay attention to the conversations between Conor and the Monster, the latter an embodiment of his fierce anger and rage. Children, especially if they discuss the film with an adult, will discover that humans are far more complex creatures than those found in most other films and books. As the Monster explains after telling the story about a prince, there is no good or bad guy in the story—most people are in between the poles of Good and Bad. But the ultimate truth that the Monster forces Conor to face and admit is more specific, more personal. It stems from the basic human desire to escape from, or to end, suffering. This is the meaning of his persistent dream of letting go of his mother’s hand, a truth which he, like so many of us faced with the seemingly endless suffering of a loved one, buries deep within himself.

Have you felt anger at times that it seems a monster is taking over? I recall an incident when I was a child working on what was then called a “stick model” airplane, requiring that long thin strips of balsa wood had to be glued to a series of carboard bulkheads, and then over the struts, colored tissue paper glued to them, forming the skin of the fuselage and wings. You pressed the stick onto the spot of glue on the bulkhead and had to wait a few minutes until the glue dried. I did this for several struts, but the glue would not hold for one, and the stick sprung up when I released my hold on it. I reglued it several times, but still the stick would not hold. I finally grew so frustrated and irritated that I raised the model, over which I had already labored a couple of hours, and smashed it to the ground. The anger last several minutes more, until it was replaced with regret. I had spent my allowance money on the model, and spent a couple of hours in assembling it!

And regarding Conor’s truth, perhaps you also have felt a tinge of impatience when visiting a loved one in a hospital or hospice that it was taking so long for the sufferer to die. You probably pushed this feeling or thought down because it centered as much on yourself as on the loved one. You certainly would not express it aloud to anyone, knowing how selfish it would seound. And yet it is there, and often the relief that we feel when the victim finally gives in to death is for ourselves as well. We say, “Well, at last she is no longer suffering” and secretly add, “nor am I,” even though sorrow will linger.

The conclusion of the film is masterfully dramatized, Conor at last able to accept his truth, painful though it is, and to accept it. The reconciliation with Grandmother, and her remark that their common ground is their love for Lizzy, is heart-warming. When Conor is in his new room at Grandmother’s house, he sees his mother’s little book of drawings she had made as a child. No doubt Grandmother placed it there for him. Leafing through it, he is surprised at what she drew so many years earlier. And this should remind us of that hospital scene in which he had let her go, and the expression on her face as she looked beyond her son to see behind him…well, you discover this for yourself.

This dark, complex tale offers so much to adults and children alike that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Though it does not follow the usual path of faith in regards to death—one might wish Grandma or one of the parents had the faith expressed at the beginning of Psalm 35—it is a profoundly spiritual film, one of benefit to believer and nonbeliever.

*Which in turn was based on a story by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Ironically Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer. She had started the book, and when she could not finish it, Patrick Ness took it on, giving her credit.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 7 min. Our content ratings:

Violence 0; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.

Psalm 9:9-19

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Dorothy leads her co-workers in what amounts to a march of triumph after she has enabled them to staff the new IBM room. (c) Fox 2000

A long time ago (1983) we were treated to the story of a group of white men who, according to author Tom Wolfe, had The Right Stuff, the seven hot shot Air Force jet pilots chosen for the Mercury 7 Program. What we did not know then was that behind those astronauts was a group of mathematics geniuses making sure that they returned to earth safely at the place where they could be picked up by our forces—and that many of these were female African Americans, who also had the right stuff. Their story, which includes their struggle for liberation in a racist, patriarchal world, is wonderfully told in this film based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and directed by Theodore Melfi.

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Katherine Johnson had to be strong to not only survive, but thrive, amidst a sea of white hostility. (c) Fox 2000

The film, centering on Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), begins years before the 1960s when Katherine was recognized as a child prodigy in math and rewarded with a full college scholarship, enrolling at an age when other children her age were just beginning high school. Jump ahead in time, when we see three friends in a car stalled along a Virginia highway leading to Hampton Virginia’s Langley Research Center. One of them, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), is underneath the front of the car tinkering with something in order to get the car started again. The other two, Katherine and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) see a state police car, with its red-light flashing, approaching from behind.

After a tense interchange featuring the usual white arrogance toward “coloreds” on display, the cop’s demeanor abruptly changes when their credentials prove that their claim to be NASA employees is true. Given that the USA is engaged in a frantic race to catch up to the Soviet Union in space, his patriotism wins out over his racism, and, because they are late for work, he offers a police escort right up to NASA’s gate. “The feistier of the three, Mary, declares, ““Three negro women are chasing a white police officer down the highway in Hampton, Virginia, 1961!  Ladies, that there is a God-ordained miracle!”

I don’t know if this incident in this “based on a true story” actually happened, but it is an excellent way to illustrate that what the nation, and NASA in particular, needed then was a vision wider than the narrow inherited racist one. If only more of the whites with whom the three worked at the sprawling Langley facility had been more like that cop. When the three women were hired for their proficiency in mathematics, they were placed in a separate room marked “Colored Computers” because Virginia’s Jim Crow laws mandated separate work rooms, bathrooms, and dining areas wherever people worked. Today, long after IBM’s revolutionary computer breakthrough, we think of a computer as a thing. In the early 1960’s so were the three female mathematicians. They had two strikes against themselves—they were women, and worse, they were black. It becomes obvious that their white superior Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) regards Dorothy as a thing, rather than a person of worth.

When Katherine is promoted and moved to the Space Task Group, every eye of the white-shirted, dark tie-wearing men in the room are fixed on her as she warily finds her desk. The harassed chief Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is the only one who ignores both her sex and race. When she has the audacity to pour a cup of coffee from the common urn, she finds the next day that someone has placed beside it a smaller pot (and presumably “equal” grade coffee) marked “Colored.” Worse, whenever she relieves herself, she must run to the only “Colored Restroom” available, located in a different building a half mile away. Her long bathroom breaks are noticed by everyone, as well as criticized, even though she takes her work with her. Her dashes to the restroom are shown so often, that it looks like the sequences could have been borrowed from Ground Hog Day.

The scene in which Harrison calls her on the carpet for her behavior is one of the film’s high points. The dam of pent up anger and frustration with the stupidity of the Jim Crow custom breaks, Katherine passionately lashing out with sharp words, leaving Harrison and her co-workers stunned. No doubt her colleagues surmise that this is the end of her career. Instead, there is the triumphant scene in which most of the black women stand by in a hallway and watch Harrison, a sledge hammer in hand, knocking down the large “Colored Bathroom” sign. Also, close by him is a security guard, who normally would gladly have enforced the Jim Crow rule, but now is helpless before the chief.

Katherine must also deal with her immediate boss Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), also a racist male chauvinist, who resents Harrison’s dictum that Katherine check his figures before submitting them to him. Stafford piles on the work and blacks out large portions of the reports he gives her. When she protests that she needs all the information to do her job verifying the figures, he smugly tells her that she does not have security clearance. Later, when he accompanies Harrison to meetings with the military in which details of launchings and landings are discussed, he refuses to include her, even though the decisions at the meetings change the numbers, thus rendering obsolete the many hours of work she has put into a report. Also, though she has done most of the work on a report, he refuses to allow her to add her name to his on the cover sheet.

Again, the scenes in which she is vindicated are sweet moments of triumph, topped probably by the scene in which astronaut John Glenn stops the countdown for his history making Friendship 7 orbit by insisting that one of “the girls” check the IBM machine’s numbers. When Harrison speaks with him on the phone, he asks “Which one,” to which Glenn replies, “The smart one.”

To the warm eulogies given John Glenn after his recent death I want to add how positively he is depicted in another scene as well. As played by Glen Powell, he is a dedicated astronaut with an unprejudiced eye. In the scene in which the Mercury astronauts visit the Langley Research Center, all the staff stand in straight-rowed groups on the field. True to Jim Crow dictates, the “colored” staff stands apart. The group of astronauts go down the line shaking hands, and, guided by their host, start to turn away before they reach the African Americans. However, Glenn leaves his comrades and strides over to the black women, exchanging pleasantries with Katherine and the others. If anyone in that period ever had “the right stuff” in its broadest sense, it was he.

The stories of Katherine’s two math whiz friends are also inspiring. Dorothy, who has been acting as the supervisor for the others in the “Colored Computers’ section, is treated with scarcely concealed condescension when she, several times, asks Vivian about the position vacated weeks before by the former supervisor. She also takes note of the large room into which the huge IBM machine is to be installed. (The planning was so poor that the wall around the small doorway must be smashed to get the computer moved in.) Once installed, the IBM staff is unable to get the main frame to work. Meanwhile, telling her friends that soon they will be made obsolete by the machine, the forward-looking Dorothy goes to Hampton’s white’s only Public Library to obtain a book on the computer language to be used with the machine. Of course, being black, she is hustled out by a security guard, but not before she has been able to hide on her person the sought-after manual.

Another of the delightful sequences of triumph comes when, after many days of studying the book and sneaking into the room to try to communicate with the computer, Dorothy is caught and chastised by the IBM staff. But when they read the print-out of her figures, their demeanor changes. Eventually not only Dorothy, as head of the division, but her black colleagues as well are staffing the room. As she leads the line of her colleagues to their new work quarters, the film not only gives a nod to The Right Stuff’s scene of the astronauts walking down a corridor, but also to the Civil Rights marches taking place in the South at that time. In my mind, as she led the women through the street and into the building housing the computer I could hear strains of “We Shall Overcome.”

The third story of quick-tonged Mary Jackson involves her seeking to become an engineer after a chief NASA engineer Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, encourages her to look beyond her present situation. Also, supported by a husband who becomes chief caretaker of their children because of the incredibly long hours imposed by Al Harrison due to one more Soviet victory, she decides to seek an engineering degree. Her barrier, of course, is Virginia’s Jim Crow law closing public universities to blacks. Her solution is like the one in the scene with the racist cop. Eventually arguing her case before a judge all too willing to go along with Jim Crow, she lays aside her tartness and demurely appeals to the man’s patriotism. Once more love of country trumps racism.

Although it is their work on which the filmmakers focus the most, there are numerous scenes of their families and personal lives—even a romance. At her church worship service Dorothy’s pastor acknowledges her important NASA work, and also welcomes newcomer Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a National Guard officer. The latter is drawn to Dorothy at the church picnic, but gets off on the wrong foot when he expresses his surprise that a woman could do such important work. Later, when he apologizes for his ignorance and arrogance, she accepts and warms up to him, the two beginning to spend together what little personal time she has. Although not shown, their time together has obviously included her three daughters. In perhaps the most charming proposal scene I know of, they are included when, at the family dinner table to which she has returned home a bit late, Jim brings in not only a dish of food, but also a small case with the engagement ring once worn by his mother.

The ring-offering scene, plus so many others, make this such an inspiring film that I would gladly award it more than five stars my web site allows. The scenes in which former detractors come around to admire and acknowledge the women as equals remind me of the ending of the two films about the black Tuskegee Airmen during WW 2, the first, a TV film with that name, and the other, Red Tails—in each of them their once racist foes express their gratitude and admiration for how skillfully the black airmen had protected them during their bombing missions over enemy territory.

I have read that some of the white characters were made up by the filmmakers so as to visualize the racist culture surrounding the women. Indeed, Al Harrison is a composite of three different directors. So, we must regard this film as a representation of the historic period and not a historical record. But the three women are real, and they made great contributions to our space program, so much so that Katherine Johnson, the surviving one*, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on November 24, 2015. And her marriage is real, she and Col. Johnson having been married for 52 years. These and other facts about the three we are told as pictures of the actors and the women they portrayed are shown during the end credits.

The cast is as good as the script, revealing a slice of our history that justifies the “hidden” in the title. Why weren’t any of them at least mentioned in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13? I suppose for the same reason that we never saw black cowboys in Westerns until after their heyday in the Fifties. Hidden Figures will rank high on VP’s Top Ten list, the women clearly depicted as persons of faith. This is a film we should be encouraging our adolescent daughters and granddaughters to see, if they still are listening to us.

  • Mary Jackson died on February 11, 2005, and Dorothy Vaughan on November 10, 2008.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.

Five Good Films For MLK Holiday

Whether for personal or group viewing, below are some excellent films available in video that honor this great prophet for America. To read my reviews, click onto a title.

THE LONG WALK HOME

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I start with this wonderful film because it is so little know, despite its two major stars, Whoopi Goldberg & Susie Spacek–and also because I will be leading a screening of it at the church I attend in Bellbrook, OH. The film chronicles the fateful impact of the Montgomery Bus Boycott on a black and a white family. Thus, it is a film about the foot soldiers rather than the General in the war on Jim Crow. Odessa is a household servant who must walk across town during the boycott because none of the black drivers go that far to the white side of town. Her employer Miriam is a dutiful housewife whose husband has just joined the White Citizen’s Council. She is upset at first by Miriam’s frequent tardiness. Then as she gets to know her servant better, she begins to understand and sympathize, and…

KING 

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This TV drama covers Dr. King’s life, from his days as a flashily-dressed seminarian courting Coretta Scott through the bus boycott that catapulted him to fame, through the March on Washington and His “I Have a Dream” speech and the dark days when he was shunned by fellow CR leaders because of his public opposition to the Vietnam War, to his untimely murder in Memphis. The cast is excellent, the chief actors being Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, and Ossie Davis as, respectively, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Martin Luther King, Sr.

BOYCOTT

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Much shorter than King, this HBO film focuses upon Dr. King’s days in Montgomery. It also gives notice of the importance of Montgomery’s black women in starting and spreading the word about the boycott after Rosa park’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat.

CESAR CHAVEZ

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A contemporary of Dr. King, and like him, devoted to the non-violence espoused by Gandhi, this is the moving story of the leader who brought dignity to oppressed California Latino grape pickers by organizing a nation-wide boycott of table grapes.

GANDHI

gandhiAs with KING, this story of the Grandfather of the nonviolent movements for freedom and justice is for those with lots of time, its running time being over 3 hours, But there are so many good scenes of Gandhi and his followers facing hatred with nonviolence that you will long remember them.

Lion (2016)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds,

and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:10

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Saroo & his older brother Guddu are inseparable. (c) The Weinstein Co.

Saroo (Dev Patel) is a young Indian man raised by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham)  in Australia. He loves his adoptive parents, but he also longs to see his mother and older brother again, hence his long search for her. Like those described by Jesus in the above Scripture, he will need persistence. He was just 5 years-old when he became lost from his family, winding up aboard a train that took him to the other side of the vast Indian subcontinent.

Director Garth Davis’s film begins in 1986 with five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) atop a hill where he is fascinated by a swarm of butterflies. At the beck of his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), he runs after him to board a coal train. They fill a bag with coal, manage to jump off the train after an officer spots them, they sell the stolen coal and are able to buy some honey and milk. They arrive back home in the village of Khandwa to share the milk with their mother Kamla and little sister Shekila, but do not reveal where they obtained the money to buy the treasure.

One night when Guddu is slipping out to return to the railroad yard and travel to another town to find work, Saroo begs to go with him. Reluctant at first, Guddu gives in, but, as he had feared, at the station the little brother is too sleepy to go any further. Guddu leaves him on a bench and promises to return for him. When the boy awakens a few hours later, he is anxious to find his brother. He boards an empty passenger train in search of Guddu, but, not finding him, goes to sleep again. The train is moving when he wakes up, and he is not able to unlock the doors. The train is not in service, and thus does not make any stops until it reaches Calcutta, a thousand miles from his home. In its teeming streets, the boy encounters enough obstacles that in themselves could fill a film. The people speak Bengali, whereas Saroo’s language is Hindi. There are hundreds of other homeless children sleeping atop small sheets of cardboard in a tunnel. Police and other adults chase after the pack of boys. Food must be stolen. A seemingly kind woman shelters Saroo, only to call a man the next morning to look the boy over. Sensing the man wants to use him for some dark purpose, the boy runs away, disappearing into the crowds. Picked up by the police, he does not know his address for them to locate his mother. They send him to an orphanage where he and other potential adoptees giggle as they are taught table manners and the English words for the tableware in preparation for their adoption.

The Brierleys choose Saroo and take him to their home in Tasmania where he is showered with loving care. Soon after they adopt another Indian boy named Mantosh, but he turns out to be deeply disturbed, and so the once tranquil home is filled with turmoil. Nonetheless, the loving couple refuse to give up the disturbed boy.

The second half of the film begins some 20-25 years later. Saroo is in Melbourne studying hotel management. He begins a romance with fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara), and through her he meets several Indian students. They are intrigued by his background and encourage him to begin searching for his roots using Google Earth. He especially is motivated to do so when at one of their parties a plate of jalebis triggers a memory. Jalebis are a delicious sweet desert that he had once asked Guddu to buy. Lacking money, his brother told him that one day he would do so.

From his laptop’s Google Earth Saroo searches for something familiar along the numerous railroad lines extending for a thousand miles beyond Calcutta. He turns the wall of his room into a giant chart of all the rail-lines leading in an out of the city. He has in his mind an image of a water tower that he had seen across from the station where he had last been with his brother. No spoiler in revealing that he eventually is successful, returning at last to his native village to find…

This film is even more remarkable in that it is a true story, adapted by Luke Davies’ from Brierleys’ memoir A Long Way Home. The great cast and marvelous, scenic photography make this a pleasure to watch. This is a very emotional film, but unlike Collateral Beauty, you do not feel manipulated by this cinematic treasure. We even see the real characters during the closing credits, at which time I hope you have a handkerchief close by. We also learn the significance of the title at the end—I will only say that no lions were harmed in the making of this film.

Good teaching scene: Saroo expresses his gratitude to Sue and John Brierley for their taking him in, and she replies that they are the ones who have been blessed. When Saroo implies that she was not able to birth a child, she tells him that she was able, but that the world was so over populated that they had decided not to add to its number, but to become parents for those who needed them.

This review with a set of questions is in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.