Hidden Figures Is Incredible, You Should Go See It

Spoilers ahead.

Hidden Figures is a film about three women “computers” — people who worked doing math calculations for NASA in the time leading up to manned orbital flights. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) is an actual math genius, who, due to her hard work and unmatched talent, pushed her way up to the Space Task Group, where her knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect. Mary Jackson, with the encouragement of her supervisors, goes to court to secure her right to continue her education at an all-white high school, so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, frustrated by doing the work of a supervisor with neither the title nor pay that comes with it, sees an opportunity in the IBM computer; she teaches herself and those she leads to program the monstrous machine and make themselves indispensable.

It is an excellent movie. It is a movie about scientific progress, and the risks and rewards that come with it. It is also a movie about civil rights. It is a movie that demonstrates the important lesson that progress depends on progress.

There are no bad guys in this movie. I haven’t seen every movie ever, but I’ve become inured to the trope: when a movie is about racism, there is usually a big ol’ racist jerk, like an inverse white savior; for example, Hilly Holbrook in The Help. It’s a character who conveniently embodies prejudice and discrimination, and in defeating them, protagonists symbolically defeat racism. In Hidden Figures, racism is not so much a part of characterization as it is a part of the setting. White people are dismissive or ignorant, but never overtly, intentionally cruel. Racism is something that the white people in the story are simply not sensitive to until confronted with it. Kevin Costner’s character is confronted with it when he realizes that Katherine, who he relies on, has to take forty minute bathroom breaks because the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is a half a mile away. Like a good manager, realizing that the rule helps no one and hurts his team, he abolishes the rule. I think perhaps the most powerful interaction of this vein occurs in a women’s restroom between Octavia Spencer’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters; the scene is so thoughtful and polite and well-acted that I audibly gasped.

I liked how the cinematography used color to draw attention to our leads, especially Taraji P. Henson’s character. In a room filled with white men in white shirts and black ties, where the only other woman is wearing neutral tones, Katherine Goble is wearing turquoise as brilliant as her mind. Her mug is the one brown one among alabaster ceramic. She is special, and it’s not hard to see if you’re willing to look; her rise feels hard-won yet also inevitable.

These were important stories to tell, and I’m glad to be an audience for them. I highly recommend this film.

A List of Things I Liked About “Moana”

This is simply a list of things I enjoyed about the movie Moana.

  • The soundtrack, obviously.
  • Moana is raised in a culture where her birthright is to lead, regardless of her gender. In fact, her gender never enters into it. This is in contrast to previous Disney films like Aladdin, where the female heir Jasmine must choose a prince to marry; and Mulan, where Mulan dresses as a boy to fulfill her father’s military obligation, since she would not be allowed to as a girl. Moana is expected to lead the people of her village; she also just happens to be a girl. I liked this because, while my mother grew up in the Jasmine mindset (have to marry to change my circumstance) and I grew up in the Mulan mindset (actively battling gender stereotypes), I want my nine-year-old niece to have the Moana mindset.
  • Moana doesn’t struggle because of her gender, but she does have struggles one can relate to. She questions why she would be ‘chosen’ and at one point in the movie she has to stop and address her self-doubt. Impostor syndrome writ large on the big screen.
  • Moana’s grandmother is a key figure in her upbringing, and also an important person to her community. She refers to herself as “the village crazy lady,” but she obviously has an important role involving childcare and oral tradition. I really liked how she taught Moana to be think about thinking and feeling, instead of supplying her with ready-made solutions to her problems. Gramma Tala is one of my favorite Disney characters ever, hands down.
  • I have a not-so-secret, not-so-little crush on Dwayne Johnson. He is a gleeful adult man with many muscles and good looks, and animators somehow translated those things into an animated movie character. He even sang his own song!
  • Speaking of Maui (the character played by Dwayne Johnson), what an interesting character. He used his superhuman powers for such human reasons. There was no true villain of the piece; the conflict was created when a well-intended action by Maui went completely awry, and he had to be persuaded and helped to fix it. And yet, he’s a likable guy, he just gets things wrong sometimes. Way wrong sometimes. But his biggest mistakes don’t define him — he’s more than those things.
  • Back to Moana, who at one point sings, “I’m everything I’ve learned and more.” She’s really fantastically acted by Auli’i Cravalho, who I don’t know as well as I know Dwayne Johnson. But I’ll be keeping an eye out for her in other projects.
  • Moana’s parents. They’re present (not dead, as they often are in fairy tales and Disney movies). And while they don’t see eye to eye with Moana on key things, that conflict does not drive the story.
  • There are things about the story line that could affect an audience’s suspension of disbelief. Instead of singing and dancing around them, the characters discuss these issues. And even if they don’t come to a verbalized conclusion, it was enough for me to see it acknowledged.
  • It was like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker The Movie. Gorgeous to behold.
  • Alan Tudyk plays a chicken.

Hey hey, Heihei.

Pokémon GO? Oh, I Pokémon WENT

Last week a free-to-play augmented reality mobile game called Pokémon GO became available. I didn’t hop on the bandwagon right away, but I wanted to try it sooner rather than later. I have a reputation as a video-game-liking teacher that I need to uphold come the fall. If Pokémon GO was going to be the big deal my Facebook feed led me to believe, I figured I better at least be familiar with it.

I like to learn about the things kids like — shows, games, hobbies, etc. — because it makes kids feel like their interests have value. Also, sometimes something really popular gives you another avenue of language to explain something. For instance, I can’t begin to list all the math concepts that I have explained using Minecraft examples. So as I played Pokémon GO this morning, I wondered how it might lend itself to classroom discussion, lessons, or activities.

Firstly, I think Michelle Obama might secretly be behind this game, or at least supporting it, because I walked four miles this morning… which is about four miles more than I did yesterday. If you stay in one place, you are not going to get the full experience of this game. You have to keep moving to find more variety of Pokémon, and to interact with locations designated as Pokéstops and Gyms. I also spent almost all that time outside, so I’m glad I slathered on the sunscreen first!

Secondly, the game’s interface is a simplified version of Google Maps. It is not super detailed, and your avatar is disproportionately large on it. As you roam the neighborhood, you can randomly encounter (and capture) Pokémon. Twice I came upon Pokémon that appeared on the interface to be across the street from me. Luckily, I did not need to cross the street to capture them. This was on two separate, busy streets in my city, and I’m an adult who knows better than to step into the street. You may want to review basic safety and alertness with your child before trying this game, even with supervision. The potential to get an injury exists. But, I think it is the responsibility of the gamer to stay aware of their surroundings — just as you must remain aware of your surroundings if you walk and read a book, or listen to music, or chat on the phone. I realized as I played that, while I walked, I could simply hold my phone and feel it vibrate to tell me there was a Pokémon nearby, rather than looking at my phone while I walked, which made me feel safer. I also made a point of not using headphones so that I could always hear cars.

Probably the best place to hunt for Pokémon this morning was a local university campus that is close to my apartment. School is out of session so it was nearly abandoned except for half a dozen other people who I suspected were also playing Pokémon GO. Additionally, there were lots of memorials and statues and such that are designated Pokéstops by the game. Pokéstops are places you can pick up free items like Pokéballs (needed to capture Pokémon), potions (needed to heal Pokémon), and revives (needed to revive Pokémon who have fainted). Finally, because of the nature of this particular campus, there were not a lot of cars driving through, and any that did drove really slow. I imagine that would be a good place to let your kids run around pretty safely. I will be checking out a park later today too; I suspect it will be a good spot as well.

So far, the most talked-about aspects of this game (at least on my Facebook feed) are that it gets people outside, and it gets people moving. But I think there are additional aspects that are good, too. For example, a player can make choices about transferring Pokémon, or powering them up. If you have limited resources, you are forced to make choices. Sure, players may end up making choices they regret, or agonizing over their choices. But ultimately a game is a low-stakes environment for choice-making. And kids don’t learn to make good decisions unless they have the opportunity to make some bad ones. Of course, the game does support in-app purchases, so make sure your child steers clear of that unless you’re willing to shell out for Pokécoins.

Another aspect of the game is that it gets players to engage in their communities in ways they maybe hadn’t before. For example, I have walked through the local university campus many times. But only this morning did I realize they had a statue of Abraham Lincoln near their information center. Funny enough, there was a Nidoking also admiring it. Park pavilions and churches come up as gyms. Luckily, you don’t have to enter a location to interact with it, otherwise the folks my local fire station might get very confused!

I did try playing it in a variety of locations — meaning my aunt’s neighborhood, and my mother’s rural house — and I did not have as much success as I did closer to home. I don’t know if that’s because location or because servers may have been down. (Actually accessing the game the past few days has been hit and miss for me due to server issues.) But my understanding is that, the higher the foot traffic in a given area, the more opportunity for interaction.

There are aspects of the game I can’t speak to, because I don’t have much experience in them yet, such as battling with Pokémon at gyms. But, I imagine that kids who want to know more will be able to find out more information with a few well-chosen search engine keywords, plus carefully evaluating sources and articles to determine how far they can be relied on. Besides, I look forward to learning more! Just waiting for my phone to charge before I coat myself in another layer of sunscreen and run off to my local park. I noticed the gym there changed hands from Team Red to Team Blue and I’m curious to know more.