Hot summer, cool movies

By Leonard Heldreth

This month we look at an award-winning Iranian film, a film about black women mathematicians, two documentaries, and Hugh Jackman’s last Wolverine film.

What do you get when you insert an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman into a film about a husband and wife trying to keep their marriage together while their apartment in Tehran literally falls down around them?  In this case, the result is The Salesman, last year’s Oscar-winner for best foreign language film, written and directed by one of Iran’s top directors, Asghar Farhadi. He collected a previous Oscar for The Separation in 2012. Although this film, in most respects, is straight-forward in its narration, some crucial events are barely explained, and an air of mystery hovers over the ending. What do these alternate shots of the lead players, still in makeup, tell us?

The Salesman opens on a view of a stage set of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but then switches to the interior of an apartment house that is shaking dangerously as huge fissures open in the walls and the windows crack. The tenants run to get out, grabbing what belongings they can. Among those fleeing the building are Emad (Shahab Hossieni) and his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), a childless couple in their 30s. Emad teaches school, and he and his wife are playing Willy and Linda Loman in an amateur production of Miller’s play, although the connections between the play and the film are not obvious until the end.

Emad and Rana’s first challenge is to find a place to live in an Iran which has a perpetual housing shortage, but another cast member knows of an apartment that has recently been vacated in a building that he manages. The previous tenant left a roomful of her belongings, however, and Rana wants the stuff moved and the lock changed. Another problem, although it is only gradually revealed, is that the woman was a prostitute, and some of her customers think she still lives there.

As he demonstrated in The Separation, Farhadi likes to take one small incident and follow it to how it affects other events. The critical incident here occurs one night when Emad calls to say he is on the way home, and Rana leaves the front door unlocked while she takes a shower. When Emad arrives, he finds bloody tracks on the stairs, and discovers his wife has been taken to the hospital for treatment after the neighbors heard her screaming. Exactly what happened to Rana is never specified (a favorite device of this director) because his focus is not on the attack but on its aftermath, how the event leads to other events, each affecting the characters in various ways. Rana doesn’t want to talk about what happened (there is some indication she cannot remember exactly), and they agree that calling the police would be a mistake. Emad then sets out to identify the attacker through the truck he left behind, and Rana retreats into fear and paranoia, refusing to be at home alone and forgetting her lines during the play. Emad gradually changes from the fairly humane person he is in the opening of the film to a man obsessed with restoring the honor of his wife through revenge. The action part of the story comes to a surprising close when he finds the guilty man. The real focus of the film, however, is how this ending has affected Emad and Rana, not to mention the attacker, and the film concludes with the couple facing their separate makeup mirrors after the production of Death of a Salesman ends.

The acting is excellent throughout as Rana and Emad cover a range of emotions and psychological states. The actors who appear in the confrontational scenes at the end are also superb as the audience’s sympathy is pulled first one way and then the other. Director Farhadi carefully sets the suspense in a way that would have pleased Hitchcock (who would also have liked the shower scene), and he sets up parallel scenes in different apartments, peering through windows and doors but leaving mysteries (such as the former tenant’s history) to divert the viewer’s attention. But there is no mystery to the film’s theme that personal vengeance is an empty victory when a man’s obsession with honor destroys what he was trying to save–his marriage.

After President Trump issued his executive order on January 27 banning travelers from Iran, Farhadi chose not to attend the Academy Awards ceremony saying, “It now seems that the possibility of (my) presence is being accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip. … Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars, regard and understand the world in very much the same way.”  The Salesman won the best foreign film Oscar. Hosseini won a best actor award at Cannes.

The “Hidden Figures” of the title refers to the black women who worked as “computers” in the “Colored Computers” section of NASA in the early 1960s as the United States tried to catch up with Russia after the Soviets had already launched the first satellite and first man into space. Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, the film focuses on the contributions of three women: Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a math prodigy who calculated John Glenn’s return trajectory (Taraji P. Henson); Mary Jackson, NASA’s first black female engineer (Janelle Monáe);  and Dorothy Vaughan, the first black female supervisor of a computer unit at the Space Agency (Octavia Spencer). The film moves back and forth between the intertwined stories of these three woman as they break through racial and gender barriers while working to help launch American astronauts into space.

Occupying center stage is Katherine Goble (Henson). When Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), leading a Space Task Group that needs to calculate the trajectory of an Atlas rocket, demands, “Isn’t there anyone here who knows analytic geometry?” Goble is pulled out of her position in the “Colored Computers” section and pushed into Harrison’s all-white group. Her supervisor,  Mrs. Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), in her white superiority, says, “They’ve never had a colored in here before, Katherine. Don’t embarrass me.” The men, homogeneous in their black suits, white shirts, black ties, and white faces, stare at her in consternation. When she later helps herself to a cup of coffee, the next day the communal coffee pot has been supplemented with a thermos bottle that says, “colored.”  She also has to make her calculations from redacted numbers because she doesn’t have a security clearance. Most humiliating, however, is the bathroom situation. Because of segregated bathrooms, Katherine has to leave the building in which she works and make a 30-minute trek to a colored bathroom, so she is sometimes not at her desk. When Harrison realizes the situation, he takes a hammer to the “white only” sign over the restroom door, and says, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color!”

Katherine’s ability is acknowledged when John Glenn (Glen Powell), before the launch of Friendship 7, tells Harrison, “Let’s get the girl to check the numbers.” When Harrison asks, “Which one?” Glenn immediately responds, “The smart one.”  A subplot shows Katherine, a widow, raising three daughters while being courted by and marrying decorated Army officer, James A. Johnson (Mahershala Ali, Oscar winner for Moonlight).

The second story, that of Mary Jackson (Monáe), shows her struggles to achieve an engineering position at NASA. Prevented from attending college classes because of Virginia’s segregation laws, she appeals to a judge and convinces him to let her enroll in graduate-level physics courses. She finally achieves her goal of being NASA’s first black female engineer.

The third story traces the ascent of Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) as she struggles with her immediate superior (Durst) to receive the title and pay for the job she is performing as the supervisor of the colored computer unit. Her opportunity appears when IBM brings in the first of its big computers but no one knows how to program it. “Liberating” a book on the Fortran computer language from the local library, she teaches herself and the people she supervises how to use the new computer. She had been unable to sign the book out because it was not in the “colored” section, and when her daughter questions her actions, Vaughn replies, “I pay my taxes for this library just like everybody else!”  Much to her supervisor’s chagrin, she receives the higher position and pay, becoming the first black woman supervisor of a NASA work group.

Hidden Figures condenses some of the real events and occasionally adds a film gloss to the action of the story. The work situations are more impressive than the home life, which tends to be stereotypical, and the dialogue is uneven. Nonetheless, Hidden Figures is a fine film that emphasizes the achievements of the black women who worked at NASA while pointing out how petty, demeaning, and ridiculous the concept of segregation was in this country a mere 50 years ago. For that reason all young people need to see this film, which fortunately has a PG rating.

Supplementary material presents the women at the present, showing Katherine Goble Johnson receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Now 98, she lived long enough also to see NASA name a computational research facility after her. Hidden Figures received Academy Award nominations for best picture, best actress in a supporting role (Spencer), and best adapted screenplay.

The racial prejudice in Hidden Figures manifests itself in the segregated restrooms, classrooms and facilities for food and drink; less obvious but more insidious, is the unacknowledged prejudice identified by James Baldwin in Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. (Actually, the quotation from Baldwin uses the other “N” word, but the change is justified: some of the people who need to see this film include exactly the ones who would throw up their hands in horror at the other word and avoid the film for fear of being offended.)

James Baldwin, novelist, essayist and speaker, left the United States in 1948 because he did not feel at home in his native country. Although black, gay, and a U.S. citizen, he felt accepted for who he was in Paris, He stayed there, writing, until 1957. At that time 15-year-old Dorothy Counts was trying to enter a segregated school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and pictures of her appeared in the papers in Paris. This event made Baldwin feel he had to come back and at least “bear witness” to what was going on.

Baldwin was friends with many of the activists of the civil rights movement, and photographs show him with the leaders, although, as he acknowledges, more as a witness than as an activist. He was good friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., visiting their homes and their families, and in 1979 literary agent Jay Acton asked him to write about the lives and successive assassinations of three of his friends. Baldwin did not feel he could do this, and he wrote a 30-page letter explaining why. The manuscript, called “Notes Toward Remember This House,” was never published. The James Baldwin Estate permitted Peck, the director of  I Am Not Your Negro, to draw from the document and Baldwin’s other writings, especially his 1976 essay, “The Devil Finds Work,” to form the text and voice-over narration of the film.

The film is a combination of still photographs, movie clips (including some from Hollywood movies), clips from TV shows (such as Dick Cavett), archival news footage, and Baldwin’s text, read in voice-over narration by Samuel L. Jackson. Low-pitched and formal, Jackson has never sounded better. Although Jackson does not try to imitate Baldwin’s voice, the two voices blend together seamlessly in the film.

There is much, much more that could be said about I Am Not Your Negro and its message of the inherent racism of American society, but, in the end, no matter what a reviewer said, the reader would have little true sense of the message of the film. The viewer must experience the relentless accumulation of images and the precise and devastating arguments that Baldwin advanced 30 years ago but which are just as relevant today—perhaps even more important today now that Baldwin’s critical voice has gone and the world watches a U.S. president, at one of his rallies, point to a black face in the crowd and say, “There’s my African American!” (Baldwin even anticipates the election of a black President and demonstrates how it supports his arguments.)

If you see one film this year for your own good and that of your country, this should be it. It’s powerful and completely unforgettable. Catch it on DVD or when it appears on streaming video, as it will. Let the initial anger go by and acknowledge the sadness and the weariness of 200 years of dealing with the after-effects of slavery and these ancient bones that will not rest. Then imagine how Baldwin must have felt when Paul Weiss, a Yale philosophy professor asked him, “Don’t you think you’re emphasizing race relations too much?” I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature-length documentary.

Short Takes

Logan is Hugh Jackman’s ninth appearance as the Wolverine, and it nicely shifts the mold from the standard Marvel superhero film to something more like Shane, which is referenced several times in the film, or to the films Clint Eastwood made for Sergio Leone. There’s a weariness to the violent, visceral, R-rated action. An aged and ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) is being taken care of by Logan, but he has seizures, and the audience finds out what happens when a brain that’s a world-class weapon has a seizure. Medication keeps the seizures under control, but X is not conscientious about taking it. A terrific new character is Laura (Dafne Keen), a teen-aged girl who sports a set of blades that parallel Wolverine’s, and she is just as deadly with them as he is. Overall, there’s a classic Western quality that hovers over Logan like an inevitable upcoming shoot-out, and and it raises the action and characters above the usual Marvel succession of explosions.

Mifune: The Last Samura is a documentary for those who love samurai films, especially the 16 classics in which Toshiro Mifune worked for the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Rashomon, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and a series of contemporary police dramas (e.g., Stray Dog) have all become classics of world cinema; George Lucas acknowledges that The Hidden Fortress was the inspiration for Star Wars. Without Yojimbo, Leone would not have made the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name westerns or the classic Once Upon a Time in the West. Seven Samurai has been remade as The Magnificent Seven twice. Mifune is a true legend of world cinema; the documentary gives us a view, often through the words of his son, of how he reached that status.

MM

Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.

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