The Sunday Magazine: Hidden Figures

Later today the Oscars will be handed out for movies released in 2016. Part of the fun of watching the ceremony is having rooting interests. I’ve already mentioned my ambivalence towards favorite “La La Land” as well as my enthusiasm for “Arrival”. As much as I’d like to see the latter win Best Picture and the former to get shut out completely there is one movie which I think has a shot at blocking “La La Land” from the Best Picture Award; “Hidden Figures”.

Hidden Figures is the story of three African-American women who worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It takes place in 1961 as the United States were beginning the Space Race in competition with the USSR. Each country trying to outdo the other by being the first to do something in space. By 1961 the Russians had placed the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first human, Yuri Gargarin. At the Hampton, Virginia NASA facility was where the mathematicians and physicists were gathered to come up with the scientific foundation necessary to have the US catch-up. When it comes to efforts like this the prevailing prejudice of the day is tamped down in the desire for success. So, it was for the women at the heart of this movie.

(l. to r.) Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer

The women are part of the “computers” team who assist all over the facility as needed. They are segregated in to their tiny cramped office overseen by supervisor Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer. Ms. Vaughn is not given the title even though she does the same work as her boss Vivian Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst. Two of her staff are brilliant and are given assignments where those skills can be used. Kathryn Goble, played by Taraji P. Henson, is added to the group which is doing the calculations for the first manned flight. The challenges of being the first “colored” member of the team is what her story entails. The other story we follow is that of Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, who is assigned to the capsule design team. Her white supervisor encourages her to fight for her right to attend an all-white school to take the course she needs to continue her education and become an engineer.

Director Theodore Melfi who also co-wrote the screenplay doesn’t take Hidden Figures any place you can’t see coming from a mile away. Which didn’t matter to me because the actresses embody their roles so seamlessly while each story provides a different angle on the state of race and gender relations in 1961 America. Even though I know the story will have a happy ending the journey to it is so entertainingly told it was a joy to spend a couple hours in the dark watching it.

Over the Holidays I try and see as many of the Oscar candidates as I can. I saw Hidden Figures on the same day I also saw “La La Land”, the movie which has resonated since that day is Hidden Figures which is why I am hoping when they open the envelope for Best Picture that’s the title on the card inside.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Empire

There are many reasons I watch television. One of them is the opportunity to watch outsized characters do outsized things which make no sense. This is the epitome of mindless entertainment. When it is done right you just sit back and let it wash over you with the silliness of it all. This particular form of visual storytelling was perfected in the 1980’s with the two series, Dallas and Dynasty. The structure of both series was similar. There is a family business run by a patriarch for whom you alternately root for and against. The various members of the family and their interactions with that man as he approves or disapproves of their choices. Dallas left the air in 1991 and there really hasn’t been another one of these kind of shows since. Almost twenty-five years later the genre is back with a fantastic twist in the new Fox series Empire.

empire ad

The business in Empire is the music business and the central patriarch is Lucius Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. Lucius runs Empire Records and has been diagnosed with ALS and has been given three years to live. His ex-wife Cookie played by the fabulous Taraji P. Henson has just returned from a 17-year jail sentence for drug dealing. She confronts Lucius and reminds him it was the drug money which helped fund the early days of Empire Records and she wants her half of the business. Lucius has to decide which of his three sons will take over the business when he dies. Andre, the Wharton business graduate. Jamal, the gay middle son. Or Hakeem the young musically talented socially reckless son. Everyone is plotting their own path to eventually take over Empire Records.


The Cast of Empire

All of this is set against the music business background and Empire is liberally using different music stars throughout. It allows for excess and conspicuous consumption to be displayed at will; another necessity for these kind of shows. Empire is produced by Lee Daniels and he has compiled an African-American cast of role players all chewing scenery with the best of them. Nobody is better at it than Mr. Howard and Ms. Henson. If there is any shortcoming to the show in these early episodes it is that the screen seems less bright when neither of them are on it. In the scenes they do together their complicated relationship is exactly what this kind of melodrama is made of. That both actors pull it off so believably is what makes Empire stand out.

I’m writing about this now because Empire has only run five episodes and it is starting to build buzz and momentum so it is easy to catch up. That way you can join me with my bowl of popcorn and cackling laugh when one character betrays the other. Empire has brought back the modern overheated retelling of King Lear with a hip-hop beat and I am loving it.

Mark Behnke