“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”


By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. 

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“What’s there tells a story, if you read between the lines.” Hidden Figures

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The human mind. Regardless the gender, race, age, creed, ethnicity of the physical form carrying that brain around, intellect can be the great unifier, driving humanity’s greatest contributions to this planet. Sadly and too often, our simplistic yet unrelenting cultural need to categorize and compartmentalize makes us lock away – belittling, ignoring, neglecting – the contents of brilliant minds in a vault of misogyny, prejudice, fear, and hate.

Hidden Figures is more than a film about how endemic institutional sexism and racism nearly derailed the American space program – a program so often held, perhaps erroneously, as the beaming example of progress and inclusion, inspiring multicultural fables from Star Trek to EPCOT Center.

Hidden Figures, based on the nonfiction bestseller by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a heartbreaking yet inspiring, trenchant yet forgiving, tear-jerking yet intellectual, timebound yet timeless allegory/cautionary tale for the mistakes we Americans are doomed to repeat when we let our baser, viler instincts cloud our appreciation for how diversity – the essential fabric of the much-vaunted U.S. of A. experience – enriches/enhances/enables our collective ability to problem-solve, defy the odds, and dream huge.

This movie got to me. Bigly.

The film’s marketing campaign – effective as it has been (giving Rogue One a run for its money at this weekend’s box office) – gives the impression of yet another in a too-long line of Lifetime-telefilm-meets-Oscar-bait-lets-wrap-American-racism-in-the-golden-hued-bubble-wrap-of-safe-historical-distance flicks. And, yes, the selfsame gorgeous cinematography, the jewel-toned zing of too-crisp-1960s fashion and decor and cars, the winking let-us-take-a-breather comic relief, the anachronistic pop music score (Pharrell Williams doing double duty as the film’s producer and composer) are all there.

Don’t be fooled. There is a stronger, more cutting message at play here than, say, in DreamWorks’ similarly positioned, cozy race fairy tale The Help. Whether Hollywood realizes it or not, too often big budget films dealing with race and gender bias unintentionally perpetuate the very bias they are attempting to decry. The persecuted class is too often “rescued” by someone (usually a pleasant, conflicted, well-heeled white person, male or female) who steps outside the cultural norms of the persecutors to pave the way for social justice. You know what? That’s an annoying trope that needs to retired. Doesn’t mean it’s untrue, but we’ve seen it. A lot. And whether we accept it or not, said trope seems engineered to let everyone off the hook, selling tickets because we all leave the theatre feeling good with our heads still buried in the sand.

Hidden Figures is slyer work, and I, for one, am grateful for that fact. You do leave the theatre “feeling good,” but for a different reason – one you may not see for days or even weeks. Crackerjack Taraji P. Henson (Emmy-nominee and Golden Globe-winner for Empire, Oscar-nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) portrays one of NASA’s resident human “computers” Katherine Johnson. She states, while faced with a particularly vexing mathematical problem, “What’s there tells a story if you read between the lines.” Amen. The protagonists of Hidden Figures – African-American women thinking and feeling in an era, not unlike the present one, where their thoughts and emotions are not only unappreciated but vigorously unwanted – do not need a rescuer or a hero. They save themselves – not to mention the space program and American pride – with their wits and their will and their very American drive to realize their own ambitions.

The film in its entirety is perfection, but Henson is the rocket fuel that keeps the enterprise propelled. She is a star, eminently watchable, with a character actor’s gift for definition, nuance, and differentiation. She inhabits and frames every scene with such spark and such drive, with such believable caution and frustration, with such compassion and inquisitiveness that you never want her to leave the screen. Henson rarely overplays any moment – there are very few over-the-top snippets where you say, “Oh, that’s the clip they will play at the Oscars.” The few outsized aspects to the performance are so righteously earned that they land like the perfect punctuational flourishes in a fine symphony. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this film nearly as much with anyone else in the role.

Nonetheless, Henson is aided and abetted by strong turns from Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) as data expert Dorothy Vaughan in another derivation of Spencer’s trademark world-weary “take no mess” tenacity and Grammy-nominated R&B wunderkind Janelle Monae (Moonlight) as engineering savant Mary Jackson whose peppery perspective gleefully, warily challenges the status quo at every fork in the road (“Civil rights ain’t always civil“).

Oscar-winner Kevin Costner was born to play 1960s sad-sack, pocket-protected, horn-rimmed, progressive misanthropes slogging through government jobs, searching for one bright spot in a sea of bureaucrats (see JFK and about half of his filmography). As space program director Al Harrison, Costner’s scenes with Henson crackle at the heart of the film: two human beings, neither of whom could really give two damns about race or gender, in love with the idea of solving big problems but burdened by a corporate culture (and society writ large), cutting off its collective nose to spite its collective face so threatened by authentic wit and wisdom, consumed by petty jealousy, and immobilized by resentment. Costner ruefully intones at one point, “We can’t justify a space program that doesn’t put anything into space.”

Golden Globe-winner Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) is also great as a mid-level NASA manager who inadvertently blocks progress at every turn, dutifully following a governmental system rigged against forward-thinking yet somehow intended to land a man on the moon. Dunst is so underrated; I wasn’t even sure it was her until I looked up the cast list on my phone halfway through the film (with apologies to my movie-seat neighbors). Dunst rejects the indulgence of playing juicy, stereotypical “racist villain” notes in the film, presenting instead a believably bedraggled functionary who knows her paycheck is contingent upon her being a rule-following twit.

Less successful in that regard, Jim Parsons (Emmy-winner for The Big Bang Theory) is underwhelming in his role as Henson’s rival and nemesis Paul Stafford. Without Sheldon Cooper’s OCD-nerd-centric tics, Parsons just comes off as a dull, hateful milquetoast. That may have been by design on the part of director Theodore Melfi but could have been accomplished more effectively and interestingly with a lesser-known actor.  On the other end of the spectrum, Glen Powell is a bit too twinkle-eyed in his “Prince Charming buying the world a Coke” portrayal of astronaut John Glenn. To his credit (and the film’s detriment), Powell leaps off the screen every time he appears – like Ed Norton’s prettier, caramel-dipped brother – but he is just “too-too” for me, disrupting the workaday credibility of the film’s depiction of NASA.

However, these are minor quibbles, made more obvious when the film surrounding them is so good. Film’s about the space program (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity) always use America’s race to the stars as a metaphor for human progress but frequently get side-tracked by the technical mumbo jumbo and with countless shots of retro Americans slack-jawed and gawking at the sky. Hidden Figures isn’t that movie, with the exception of a few corny shots of retro Americans slack jawed and gawking at the sky as Glenn makes his nail-biting return to earth in the film’s final moments. Hidden Figures is a movie about brilliant minds, unfairly marginalized by American superficiality, for whom mathematics is a language unto itself (the film runs rings around A Brilliant Mind in that regard). That language presents a path whereby three transcendent voices cut through the crap and the clutter of America’s sad “traditions” of sexism and racism. Hidden Figures is the movie America needs right now.


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.