Tag Archives: Mahershala Ali

Hidden Figures (2016)

For each individual’s success there are dozens of people who helped them get there. In many cases, these people never receive credit for their efforts. Hidden Figures, is the story of how three black women contributed to NASA’s early programs. Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer), and Mary (Janelle Monae) are “computers” in the early 60s, meaning the perform the complex calculations needed by the engineers and scientists. Katherine has been assigned to a special task group, but has to deal with being the first black person working there. Dorothy is trying to get promoted to supervisor, a job she is already performing, but can’t win the respect of her boss. Mary wants to apply to become an engineer, but doesn’t have the required education and isn’t allowed to attend the only school that offers it. Each of the stories follow the women as they deal with prejudices against their race and their gender.

The writing is surprisingly sharp. There are plenty of witty exchanges between the women as they comment on their managers and the difficulties they have to face. Monae is particularly funny as the unfiltered, sassy member of the group. Her barely contained anger and judgmental stares lead to several amusing scenes. The film also handles quieter moments well. Katherine is courted by a charismatic military officer played by Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and their growing romance is both sweet and comical. The screenplay adds some much needed flavor to the otherwise well-trodden narrative.

The couple’s interactions provide a welcome tenderness to the film.

The actresses are clearly enjoying themselves in their roles. Playing technical characters is something many actors struggle with (think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening), but the cast here is believable as talented mathematicians. Spencer is sympathetic as the den mother of the group who tries to ensure jobs for her team in the face of impending obsolescence by technology. Monae’s rare moments of politeness are enjoyable as she navigates through the labyrinthine rules preventing her from reaching her desired profession. Even Henson is charming as her character’s intelligence and work ethic outshine her supposedly superior bosses. She definitely continues her signature “stink look” throughout the film, but that subsides in favor of the story.

Special note needs to be given to the soundtrack. Most period pieces rely on music of the era to help embed the audience in the past, but composers Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch decided to go in the opposite direction. They use selections or original songs that are deliberately anachronistic, but instead of feeling jarring they add a modern sensibility to the film’s retro setting. This injects energy into what could have been an otherwise stuffy environment.

The real Achilles heel is that the plot is too predictable. Every potential conflict and every subsequent outcome can be guessed 30 seconds into the trailer. This isn’t a film that is trying to do something new on a story level. It’s not what happens, but who it happens to that is important. The goal of the film is to provide some much needed praise to this often overlooked demographic and celebrate the strength of women in general. That intent deserves commendation but the straightforward story diminishes the drama. There are several moments where the film attempts to create tension, but they have no real effect. We already know where the conclusion is headed and can’t get invested in the potential crises. Without that investment, the movie can only impact on a surface level. Hidden Figures is an uplifting tribute to forgotten women held back by its commonplace narrative.

3/5 stars.

Moonlight (2016)

As people pass through time, the events they experience, both good and bad, shape who they grow up to be. Moonlight is the story of one man’s life. Chiron, played by a different actor in each of the three time periods, is raised by a single mother in a poor part of Miami. As a child, Chiron, called “Little” due to his size, barely talks and is regularly beaten up by other kids at school. When running away from his bullies, he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali; House of Cards), a drug dealer, who takes care of him and, along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), becomes a surrogate family member. When his mother uses drugs or when he gets picked on, Chiron goes to their house for support.

The consequences of Chiron’s upbringing are clear. One day he goes to Juan and Teresa’s house and asks “Am I a faggot?”. Without support from his mom and without a father, he is unable to figure out who he is and the labels other people attach to him, including his nicknames, determine how he behaves and perceives himself. As a teenager, his mother’s drug addiction becomes a larger issue. He often can’t stay at home and doesn’t know how to deal with his homosexuality. The outside pressure to act “hard” or “tough” in order to survive push him to a life of crime.

Chiron's troubled home changes the course of his life.
Chiron’s troubled home changes the course of his life.

After serving time in prison, Chiron deals drugs just like Juan did. He has tattoos, wears a grill, and even drives around in Juan’s car. After the one romantic experience of his youth left him heartbroken, he clearly overcompensates for the pain he has felt. Chiron spent his time in prison changing himself so nobody could hurt him. Despite his tough exterior, when he reconnects with a childhood friend and first love, his true nature comes out. He reverts to the reticence of his youth and is at a loss for words. His subtle hesitations betray the emotional frailty behind his facade of hardness.

The actors deserve enormous credit for their consistency. Whenever a character’s life is split into distinct sections and requires different actors for each, there is always a risk that they don’t seem like the same person. Yet even as Chiron changes physically, especially as an adult, the character’s behaviors carry through. The sad stare, the tilted head, and other minute mannerisms remain constant. The cast and director are able to unify the performances and create a cohesive character portrait.

Moonlight has incredibly sensitive direction. Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) brings a deliberate pace to the film. Each scene is intimate and characters feel real. Jenkins shoots his characters close-up with lighting that emphasizes mood. The best comparison is Derek Cianfrance whose character interactions also share the same intensity. Words are spoken slowly for maximum impact and the looks in the eyes of the characters as well as their physical posture are just as important as dialogue. Moonlight uses its measured style to examine a young man’s life with raw veracity.

4/5 stars.