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Recent Movies: I Am Not Your Negro; Hidden Figures; A Man Called Ove

April 8, 2017

Recent Movies

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin and his views of racism in the U.S. are the main focus of this documentary with special attention on the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. The film includes live footage of Baldwin in the 1960s (on the Dick Cavett Show and at a lecture at Cambridge University) and readings (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) from his unfinished manuscript “Remember this House”.

From the start, it is clear that Baldwin had an intellect and outlook that were far superior to the average person – not just during his life (he died in 1987) but even more so today. He is very eloquent in expressing the repugnance of an evil whose effects continue to resonate today. He is even more so when he describes theories that racism is a result of a deeper problem in the soul and collective mindset of the U.S. One such malaise is the quest for an unattainable ideal of “purity” and the inevitable self-loathing that follows this self-delusional pursuit. Other such problems include materialism.

Baldwin’s mind is so much above that of the average viewer that there is a slightly mixed result. At times, one feels distant – and possibly inferior – to the mindset being expressed but overall, the viewer is rewarded with insight that is rare in other sources.

Considering the rich history of this film, it is disappointing that some information was excluded. Baldwin had two prejudices against him. In addition to being black, he was also gay. This fact is alluded to only briefly during the film. There are also surprising negative comments he made against Bobby Kennedy. Research after the film revealed that Baldwin and Kennedy did not get along despite supporting a similar cause. The film might have been more rewarding had it explored more on both of these topics.

The footage is brilliant and shocking at the same time. After this movie, one is left with many uncomfortable feelings that lead to a lot of thinking – a sign it has fulfilled its purpose.

RATING:   * * *

 Hidden Figures

 Based on a true story: In 1961, three black women are friends who work at a research center for NASA in the state of Virginia. All are brilliant mathematicians and  have greater qualifications that would exceed those of their current jobs. They include Katherine (Goble) Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), a genius mathematician, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), an aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), a computer expert and aspiring supervisor. “Hidden Figures” is based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterley.

This movie is an entertaining piece of NASA history (including John Glenn’s first launch into space) with a special focus. It is occasionally jingoistic (‘we gotta beat those Russians in the space race’) and with occasional cheesy music to underline a budding romance which is easily foreseen. But it is ultimately a fine story that very ably highlights the stresses and frustrations of regular working life with the added humiliation of segregation in the workplace.

Indeed, some of the people in the film were composite characters from the book and there were some incidents in the film that didn’t actually happen. One of the most over-the-top “Hollywood” scenes is one where Kevin Costner (as Katherine’s boss) is wielding a pick axe (those who’ve seen the movie will know what I mean). Despite these liberties with the truth, the scenes of segregation still had the right effect of outraging the viewer. The highlight is a scene in which Katherine, who had been timid up to a point, has a perfect meltdown scene (Hanson’s best moment in a fine performance). Part of this build-up included the stress of having a very annoying senior peer (played by Jim Parsons) who knows he is less smart than she is and tries to dominate her as much as he can. (Incidentally, “Loving”, another movie released in late 2016 also highlighted racist laws in Virginia during the same time period.)

The directing by Theodore Melfi is rather conventional in a Hollywood way yet the effect worked by the end as I wanted to stand up and cheer during the closing credits. After the film, I pondered the question: how many other hidden histories are waiting to be told?

RATING:   * * *

 A Man Called Ove

In a Swedish townhouse community, Ove (Rolf Lassgard) is a long-time resident who is recently widowed. His grief only adds to his grouchy attitudes toward people who don’t follow his standards of community living. His new neighbours are a young mixed-race family co-lead by Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), a very pregnant immigrant from Iran.

Some of the best scenes in the film are those told in flashback as they explain how Ove developed such a negative attitude. The story (screenplay by Hannes Holm based on the book by Fredrik Backman) has a clever way of making us curious about finding the pieces of the past with various hints in the current story; and then satisfying our curiosity once such events are revealed in the parallel flashback story.

Parvaneh’s character is a bit of an anomaly. She can sometimes be annoying and take Ove for granted. Yet, the story seems to imply that she is there to “humanize” him. This might have worked better if her character had been more developed. Instead, too much time is spent on other subplots, sideshows and other characters that end up overcrowding the narrative. Some of the subplots also seem to be resolved unusually quickly.

There seem to be messages like “you can’t go through life alone” and themes of ‘community values’ which may be noble but their repetitions become didactic and annoyingly obvious and sentimental. Other themes work better such as the recurrence of administrators-from-hell (“whiteshirts” as Ove calls them), the insensitive bureaucrats that we can all recognize: Satan in multiple human forms.

The conclusion is touching as it makes us have a better understanding about people who appear grouchy. Also, Lassgard gives a fine performance. But overall, the movie was rather mixed. The dramatic scenes are much better than the comedy scenes. Call me old-fashioned but I just don’t find humour in repeatedly thwarted suicide attempts.

RATING:   * * 1/2


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