'Fences' And 'Hidden Figures' Explore Race, And More, In Midcentury America

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 26, 2016 5:35 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Two films set right around the middle of the 20th century have opened for the holidays - "Hidden Figures" and "Fences." Both Center on African-American characters and both are awards contenders. That's where their similarities end says, our critic Bob Mondello. "Fences" is fiction based on a Broadway play, "Hidden Figures" is a true story about women in America's space program.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: In 1962 when astronaut John Glenn was aiming to be the first American to orbit the Earth, some of the math that allowed him to do that was calculated by hand. An IBM mainframe also did calculations, but its work on things like flight trajectories was verified by pencil-wielding mathematicians, many of them women. They were known as computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

KEVIN COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) What's the status on that computer?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) She's right behind you, Mr. Harrison.

MONDELLO: He's surprised to see a black woman, Katherine Goble, on her first day in his department.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) Does she handle analytic geometry?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Absolutely, and she speaks.

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Yes, sir, I do.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) Which one?

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Both - geometry and speaking.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) You think you can find the Frenet frame for this data using the Gram-Schmidt...

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Orthogonalization algorithm, yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.

MONDELLO: OK, competence established, but this is segregated 1960s Virginia. The black women's restroom is on the far side of the NASA complex. Katherine is expected to get her coffee from a pot not used by her white male coworkers. And though her job is to check their calculations, she's given sheets of figures so heavily blacked out she can barely read them. Despite which, she discovers a basic flaw with the rocket that's supposed to take Glenn into orbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

JIM PARSONS: (As Paul Stafford) How did you know that Redstone couldn't support orbital flight? That's classified information. It's top secret.

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Well, it's no secret why the Redstone tests keep failing. Numbers don't lie.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) And you figured all that with this? Half the data's redacted.

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Well, what's there tells a story if you read between the lines.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) And how'd you know about the Atlas rocket? That's not math. That data's not here like you said, it's classified.

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) I held it up to the light.

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) You held it up to the light?

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Yes, sir.

MONDELLO: He holds the paper with all that black ink up to the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) Well, there it is - Atlas. Are you a spy, Katherine?

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) Am I what?

COSTNER: (As Al Harrison) I said are you a Russian spy?

HENSON: (As Katherine G. Johnson) No, sir. I'm not Russian.

MONDELLO: She's not a spy, either. Director Theodore Melfi has created a bright, snappy portrait of '60s America for his crowd-pleasing history lesson. "Hidden Figures" is feel-good to the max. The cars glisten, the music pops, everyone's pulling in the same direction. And a nod from the right higher up is enough to bridge any cultural divide. Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson with what you might call assertive timidity, knows full well that the deck is stacked, as do her buddies Octavia Spencer and Janell Monae. They're just not going to let that fact keep their talent under wraps. They may be hidden figures, but they can take some satisfaction in the knowledge that their figuring has made a difference.

In "Fences," nothing about Troy Maxson's life makes a difference, at least as he sees it. And he'll tell you how he sees it every minute. A ballplayer who aged out of baseball before Jackie Robinson came along to integrate the Major Leagues, Troy hardly ever stops talking, whether he's on the job hauling garbage...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) Think only white fellas (ph) got sense enough to drive a truck? Hell, that ain't no paper job. Anybody can drive a truck. How come you got all the whites driving and the colored lifting?

MONDELLO: ...Or at home with his wife and his best buddy who've heard it all before.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) ...Don't even know what he be talking about (laughter).

STEPHEN HENDERSON: (As Jim Bono) You got more stories than the devil got sinners.

WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) Oh, hell, I done seen him too, done talked to the devil.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Knowing he's not important in the general scheme of things, Troy isn't inclined to let anyone else be important, either. He won't go to hear his elder son play jazz. And when his younger son Cory looks like he might get further in sports than his dad, Troy stomps on that dream, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) Cory done went and got recruited by a college football team.

WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) He ought to get recruited in how to fix cars or some way he can make a living.

MONDELLO: But if Troy is a little guy, he's a little guy made larger than life by the glorious torrent of words playwright August Wilson gave him. On Broadway in the 1980s, James Earl Jones fairly bellowed those words. A few years ago in a "Fences" revival, it was Denzel Washington. He has now brought Troy and most of that revival's cast to the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) Had a dog, his name was Blue.

DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) Don't nobody want to hear that old song.

HENDERSON: (As Jim Bono) Hell, I remember that song myself.

MONDELLO: Washington is also directing sparely, without doing much cinematic opening up. The film is called "Fences" because it's about characters who are hemmed in and Washington keeps it claustrophobic, but he also does a generous transformative thing in his playing. Theater audiences have always taken to Troy despite his failings, but Washington's Troy is less endearing, less forgivable than most. And when words start to fail him, as they do in a furious altercation with his wife played by Viola Davis...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

WASHINGTON: (As Troy Maxson) It's not easy for me to admit that I've been standing in the same place for 18 years

DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) Well, I've been standing with you.

MONDELLO: Troy's family, his authority, his film become hers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

DAVIS: (As Rose Maxson) I got a life, too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot as you. Don't you think I ever wanted other things? Don't you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me? You're not the only one...

MONDELLO: Davis is mesmerizing. And the pain Troy has been covering up with words is suddenly all in Denzel Washington's eyes - speechless. This man is helpless - one of society's hidden figures, you might say - fenced off, nonetheless majestic. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.