Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Our entire family went to see this movie yesterday. I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was thought provoking. So although it doesn’t meet my previously stated criteria for being reviewed, it did add another item to the list of things that I thought made it a worthy film.

For those unaware, Hidden Figures is the story of Katherine Johnson (and to a lesser degree Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan), black female mathematicians/engineers who worked for NASA at the height of the American-Russian space race. Trailer:

I haven’t had a chance to date to read the book, but I plan to in the near future and hope to review it here upon conclusion. One the things I usually do however, when viewing a film based on true events, is fact checking at a glance. This is easily enough accomplished via a website such as History vs. Hollywood, which fact checked Hidden Figures here.

The brilliant and groundbreaking nature of the work these three women did seems to be as noteworthy as the movie depicts. NASA’s official pages dedicated to the women can be found here, here, and here. What does seem to be markedly different, at least in Katherine Johnson’s recorded experience, was the level of discrimination she experienced in the movie. Or more accurately, the discrimination she didn’t experience.

Although the film depicts a fairly hostile work environment for Katherine Johnson upon her promotion from computer to the upper levels of flight planning, she reported that she was always treated a s a respected colleague, something I find believable.

Her testimony rings more true than the movie depiction not because I underestimate the amount of racial discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. On the contrary, it rings true because of the high level of discrimination present in Virginia in the early 1960’s. There was a fierce competition between the U.S. and Russia at the time this story took place, particularly after the launch of Sputnik. Anyone who could help Americans close the gap might have been viewed as an asset.

Further, there was no such thing as affirmative action during this time so Katherine Johnson’s mere presence was evidence of her worthiness to be there. If she could help accurately and quickly compute the math to get launches accomplished, she was no doubt welcomed.

One of the noteworthy points of the existence of the colored “computers”, the name of the groups of women employed by NASA during that time to do mathematical computations, was the fact that they were all female. From the white perspective, this was not necessarily anything of note, as those girls could still marry “up”, if you will.

However, from the black perspective it highlighted (for me at least) the reality that black women -long before the militant feminism of the mid to late 60’s- were already on the road to the education and occupational advantage over black men that is so often written about today as if it the gap only just began to widen in the 1990’s. This hidden disparity was one of the peripheral issues that made this film interesting to me even though it was never addressed by the film.

I hope to discuss this story more after reading the book (which has a backlog of requests in my local library system) .I do think it’s worth viewing for the historical value.Until I can read the book, I give the movie:

Grade B-

Content advisory:

  • Discussions of racism and sexism throughout film.
  • A couple “damns” here or there, a depiction of Dorothy Vaughn sneaking a programming book from the white section of the library after not being allowed to check out books there. Lesson there for your kids.

Things Fall Apart

things fall apartThings Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Originally published in 1958.

Things Fall Apart focuses on the story of Okonkwo, a Nigerian tribe leader in the fictional Umuofia clan around the end of the 19th century, as African colonization is beginning in earnest. The historical fiction novel is divided into three parts.

In part one we are introduced to Okwonko, a strong, hard working and ambitious tribal leader. He worked himself up to that position in the face of what should have been enormous odds, since his father was a man of little means and low reputation who left him nothing on which to build his own farm and family.

In his determination to be nothing that his father was and everything his father was not, Okonkwo became renown for his skill as a warrior, industriousness, wealth and masculinity. He is a harsh man of strength and determination who is respected and deferred to among the people of his clan. He is referred to as the “Roaring Flame”.

Part 1 also gives us a glimpse of his family, his three wives and many children, the structure of marriage and family life within the clan, and their polytheistic religion along with its rituals. Okonkwo’s religious devotion is genuine but sometimes clashes with his pride and need for control.

Of specific interest is Okonkwo’s second and seemingly most beloved wife of the three, the only surviving child he sired with her (a daughter he frequently laments wasn’t born male), and his oldest son Nwoye who is a disappointment to him almost from birth and whom Okonkwo resigns will never be a great man:

“A chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted the very day it hatches. I have done my best to make Nwoye grow into a man, but there is too much of his mother in him.”

As part one closes Okonkwo, after committing a female offense -an inadvertent one- resulting in a death, is humbled by a 7 year exile from his clan in which he has to return to his motherland.

Part 2 of the book  begins as Onkonkwo is resettling his family among the land and clan of his maternal family. It is here that he experiences his first encounter with European Christian missionaries. It is here that Nwoye is drawn to the new religion, converts to it, and finds relief as his relationship with his father is irreparably severed. One of the missionaries attempt to assuage Nwoye’s nonexistent grief by quoting Mark chapter 10, but it wasn’t necessary. Nwoye was relieved to finally be free of his father’s oppressive and rigid view of manhood:

Nwoye did not fully understand. But he was happy to leave his father. He would return later to his mother and his brothers and sisters and convert them to the new faith.

This is Okowonko’s fear: that after his death, his remaining children will forsake the ways and religion of their ancestors and embrace the white man’s God.

The rest of the second portion of the book examines the escalation of tensions between the missionaries and their new converts, and the attempts of clan leaders to resist the usurpation of their way of life.

In part 3, Okonkwo returns home from his exile to find a much different clan than the one he left 7 years earlier. The missionaries have exerted considerable influence and established a rapidly growing church, much to Okonkwo’s dismay.

The missionaries and the African traditionalists at one point achieve a peaceful coexistence so long as the leader of the missionaries was one whose tactics were in line with actual Christian teachings; conversion void of coercion. Eventually however, his health takes a turn for the worst and he is replaced by a man with a zeal for rooting out evil in all its forms, and things truly begin to fall apart:

Mr. Brown’s successor was the Reverend James Smith, and he was a different kind of man. He condemned openly Mr. Brown’s policy of compromise and accommodation. He saw things as black and white. And black was evil. He saw the world as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in a mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.

Reverend Smith was seemingly unacquainted with the verses declaring that we do not war against flesh and blood, and things went downhill very quickly.

Okonkwo, still a man of war, wanted his clan’s men to rise up and fight for the preservation of their way of life. His clan shared his concerns but also embraced the newly formed markets and schools the missionaries brought to their village. Also, having seen the fate of another clan who had attempted to fight, his clan refused to join him, and it causes him much grief:

Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.

Not long after this, Okonkwo meets his tragic end.

This book, while void of preachy proclamations, does open the door to lots of questions about how Christians take the gospel to the ends of the earth. How much of an imprint should we make on cultures we enter? How do we preach Christ without decimating traditional ways of life? Are we careful not to allow our Western sensibilities to declare sinful what is in reality not sinful but simply different albeit personally offensive to us?

To be sure, many of the religious practices of the Nigerian tribe in this book were sinful, such as the belief that twins were an abomination, accursed and the babies to be immediately discarded to spare the wrath of the earth goddess. But there were other practices that were simply different: the attire (or lack thereof) of the women were so ingrained in the way of life that it was certainly not as sexually provocative as it would be in the West, to name just one example.

This book, I have recently learned, is commonly taught as a part of the literature curriculum in many public middle and high schools. I suspect their perspective and reasoning for assigning it is far different from my own, if Shmoop’s gender analysis is any indication.

Grade: B

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable, although perspective is everything I suppose. War, allusions to sex, and Okonkwo’s highly un-PC view of sex roles permeates the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dreamers and Deceivers

DreamersandDeceivers-191x288Dreamers and Deceivers by Glenn Beck, originally published 2014.

I stopped listening to Glenn Beck’s radio program years ago when he started transposing a view of America as the promised land which will save Western Civilization onto everything he broadcasted. I’m glad I put that aside and read his book.

I wasn’t sure I would like it, but it’s one of my favorite genres and the reviews for it were decent (when the reviewer wasn’t a foaming at the mouth liberal),  so I figured it was worth a look.

Interestingly, Goodreads categorizes this book as nonfiction, even though in reality it is a work of historical fiction. Well done, if my research is any indication, but fictional nonetheless.

If you haven’t figured it out yet I enjoy historical fiction, partly because it makes history comes alive, and partly because I find myself more inclined to do research on the people and subjects presented, thereby furthering my own historical education. Like most people, my original understanding of history is woefully deficient.

Beck peels back the layers and lays open the stories of names well known to most known Americans. Even Walt Disney, whose story we all know, is made fresh and new.

The best stories however, are the ones we hear the least about. In my opinion, he could’ve spared us the background on Disney and Steve Jobs, although he did a very good job exploring the parts of their stories most of never heard of. Where his book shined however, is in his revealing of Charles Ponzi, Alan Touring, Grover Cleveland, and Alger Hiss. These are where his best storytelling takes place.

Ponzi’s story was most engaging to me. Not because he was a likable man, but because of the human gullibility (not to mention greed) he was able to exploit from the earliest stages of his life. Like a cat, he seemed to have multiple lives.

The list of source books and texts at the end of Beck’s book is exhaustive, too exhaustive for me to go through them all, but I hope to read at least a couple of them in the coming year. Of particular interest to me is the true father of modern radio, Edwin Armstrong, because up until I read Beck’s book I thought the founders of RCA were the true minds behind the technology.

Pretty good read.

Grade: B-

Content advisory: Nothing of note.

Welsh Prince Trilogy Book 2: Falls the Shadow

falls the shadowFalls the Shadow, by Sharon Kay Penman. Originally published in 1988, this is the second installment of Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy, and largely explores the story of Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman who led a revolt against King Henry III of England.

If you’re like me, you may wonder why this book in which Welsh princes are minor characters are a part of the Welsh prince trilogy. Never to worry, however. Although the Welsh princes’ ongoing saga with the English crown are periphery in this installment, their presence is relevant and the daughter of Simon de Montfort plays a major role in the final years of Welsh/English conflict and the conclusive end of Wales as an independent nation.

This is, without hesitation or contemplation, my favorite of the three books because Simon de Montfort is my favorite of the heroes featured in the trilogy. Born with noble title but little means and more than enough confidence, he worked his way up through political savvy and determination into a place of prominence. As this novel is historical fiction, a quick bit of research supports Penman in her presentation of the 6th Earl of Leicester. She treats us to a captivating hero and the story is engrossing.

Her interpretation of De Montfort’s clandestine and fruitful marriage to Eleanor, daughter of England’s King John, is sweet and poignant but without being overly romantic and sappy. Eleanor, unlike Joanna of Here Be Dragons, has no conflicting emotions or split loyalties. She is on Simon’s side, in every aspect, every step of the way. This made for a better story, at least from my point of view. I don’t like female characters (or real life women for that matter) who haven’t grasped the conclusion of the matter on loyalty to their husband. Eleanor is my favorite heroine of the three trilogies as well.

Whereas Here Be Dragons was anchored by a great love story, Falls the Shadow moves along on the strength of political intrigue and war. Simon is a great warrior, another endearing trait, and whatever one thinks about his allegiance with the regional barons to revolt against the king in favor of reform, Penman gives us the picture of a man at peace with his God, his conscience and the merits of his crusade.

There is lots of war and death and gruesomeness in Falls the Shadow, right up until Simon meets his violent end, complete with dismemberment by the royalists against whom he fought.

Grade: A

Content advisory:

There are a few sections which include sexual intimacy between Simon and Eleanor, but nowhere near as much as was contained in Here Be Dragons. Graphic content in this second installment is centered on the frequent clashing on the field of battle, and there is plenty of that.

Welsh Prince Trilogy, Book 1: Here Be Dragons

here be dragonsIt’s still taking a while for me to get through my current read (Christendom Destroyed). Since I’ve been pondering the right time to review and discuss Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy series, I figured I’d use my writing time this week to begin that. We’ll start with the first book in the series, Here Be Dragons.

Historical fiction, done well, is great reading ad I enjoy it no matter what era it covers. Having only a rudimentary and peripheral knowledge of the 13th Century conflicts between the English and Welsh, this book also gave me the opportunity to do some educational digging. It is a practice of mine to check the authenticity of any historical fiction  I read, and Penman does an admirable job of keeping with the spirit of life in 13th century England and Wales. Alas, it is historical fiction, so a plot summary is in order.

Wales was a country where royal title did not automatically pass from the ruling prince to his eldest legitimate son. Illegitimate sons were given equal rights to claim inheritance as their legitimate brothers and as such, it was a kingdom in constant turmoil and conflict.

Wales is a small country of proud people and a culture often at odds with those of England, to whom their princes must often swear allegiance in order to keep peace in their country.

More accurately, these truces are for the purposes of keeping peace with England, which is constantly encroaching with the express intent of making Wales a permanent English territory. There was hardly ever real peace in Wales because its princes were instigating civil wars rather than unifying to keep their beautiful and exotic country sovereign and out of English hands. Penman describes it thus:

Theirs was a land of awesome grandeur, a land of mountains and moorlands and cherished myths. They called it Cymru and believed themselves to be the descendants of Brutus and the citizens of ancient Troy. They were passionate, generous, and turbulent people, with but one fatal flaw. They proclaimed themselves to be Cymry—’fellow countrymen’—but they fought one another as fiercely as they did their English neighbors, and had carved three separate kingdoms out of their native soil.” Prologue, pg. xi

In 1283 England finally seized full control of  all Welsh territory and went to great lengths to wipe out what was left of the culture of the people there, whom they considered barbaric and primitive, and making it fully English. The title Prince of Wales was not always held by an Englishman.

However there was a brief period in Welsh history when the country was unified under the leadership of one powerful and charismatic prince, Llewellyn the Great, and it is this era which Penman uses as a starting point for her novel, Here Be Dragons.

Llewellyn earned his place as ruler of Wales in battle and by brokering a peace with his brothers. He then marries Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England’s King John to form an alliance, however fragile, with the English crown. After a rocky start to the union, Penman weaves together a great love affair, which becomes inevitably stressed when tensions rise between Llewellyn and the English king, who insists on treating the Welsh Prince as his vassal.

While the story of Joanna and Llewellyn is central to the story, what drew me into this book was the family dramas, political intrigue, fierce battles, and descriptions of daily life in 13th century England and Wales. I was frequently engrossed with the well offered descriptions of natural beauty, perhaps because I live in the midst of suburban sprawl.

The stark differences in the ways of government, family, and marriage rights in the two countries was fascinating as well, as I bothered to fact check Penman’s work. This isn’t to say that I agreed with Welsh law, but was fascinated that such laws existed.

I like this book because it was fast paced without being a facile, and it was historically authentic.

It has romance in it, and some racy stuff at that. However, I would not categorize it as a romance novel as it can just as easily be categorized as an adventure story, or a war story.
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