This is the movie which (along with Manchester by the Sea) has the best chance of blocking La La Land from garnering a record haul at the Academy Awards this weekend. I hope it does. It’s not an easy film to sit through, but it rewards giving it your attention.
The life of a young gay black man in Miami is told in three instalments, with different actors playing him at three different ages (the lack of resemblance between the three is one of the movie’s hurdles). We first see him as a boy, neglected by his crackhead mother (Naomie Harris on blistering form), bullied at school for being weak and ‘different’ but befriended by a macho drug-dealer and his girlfriend. In Part Two Chiron is a troubled teenager who briefly finds romance with one of the bullies and learns to fight back. In Part Three he is an ex-con with a bodybuilder's physique and gold teeth but still very much a loner – and desperately lonely. A dark, bleak movie ends with a faint hint of hopefulness.
This is a very different movie from Brokeback Mountain but it addresses the same theme: the challenge of being gay in a gay-hating world. Moonlight suggests that a black neighbourhood in Miami is more homophobic than anywhere else (ironical given that South Miami is practically a gay ‘haven’ – if not a gay ‘heaven’). The three actors who play Chiron are all excellent, as are all the supporting cast. Much of the dialogue is unintelligible to a British audience and the mood of the movie is probably too bleak for many people, but anyone who admired Brokeback is sure to find Moonlight a deeply absorbing experience.
So soon after Jackie we’re back to the Kennedy era again, with this uplifting tale that puts a shaded meaning on the ‘race’ element of the Space Race. Hidden Figures – the title is a clever pun – is the story of three African- American women whose mathematical brilliance made a vital contribution to the effort to catch up with the Russians who’d rocketed the first man out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The women were called ‘human computers’ – we later see the installation of the clunky great IBM machine that would take over much of the laborious number-crunching these workers performed. The movie goes out of its way to show how tough black women’s lives were in the workplace: ‘colored’ toilets, restricted prospects for advancement and constant daily humiliations from white co-workers (one of them is given her own coffee dispenser next to the one the white staff use). Writer/director Theodore Melfi shows us their home lives too, which are surprisingly similar to the lives of white folk. The number-crunching sequences are executed crisply enough not to overwhelm the audience with mathematics.
The script perhaps slightly over-eggs the three women’s vicissitudes to heighten the drama, but the three actresses (Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) give rock-solid performances with very few moments of ‘grandstanding’. Kevin Costner is similarly ‘solid’ as the head of the Space Research Division.
This is another film, like last month’s Lion, that’s bursting with the ‘feel-good factor’. The feel-good factor is something Hidden Figures (if you’ll excuse another very un-PC pun) delivers in spades.