HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)
This is a fine film, although considerable liberties have been taken throughout with the truth and the facts. The movie focuses (with some exaggeration) on the issues that faced African-American women involved in the early days of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), at a time when the USA and the Soviet Union were locked in the ‘Space Race’. It looks at three women in particular: Katherine G. Johnson, an analytic geometry genius, Dorothy Vaughan, an expert in computers, and Mary Jackson, a brilliant engineer, all of whom were employed by NASA in the 1960s.
One quite glaring contortion of the facts happens when astronaut John Glenn’s ‘Friendship 7’ capsule encounters life-threatening issues with the craft’s heat shield. In Hidden Figures his dramatic re-entry is watched on TV screens throughout America, viewers fully aware that his capsule is in grave danger of burning up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. In reality, the last thing NASA needed at that time was for the public to worry about a disaster in the space programme, so the heat shield problem was kept secret until well after Glenn had safely splashed down.
The problem with the ‘GO/NO GO’ coordinates for Friendship 7 did actually occur and he specifically requested that Katherine personally re-check the maths involved; but this did not happen as he waited on the launch pad. It took place over three days, a few weeks prior to the launch. Furthermore, ‘GO/NO GO’ calculations take place when retro rockets are fired (long before the capsule’s parachutes are deployed, as shown here). Also, Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone launch features a large map displaying orbital paths. Shepard’s flight was, in fact, sub-orbital.
The problem with the ‘coloured bathroom’ actually happened but not to Katherine Johnson. When engineer Mary Jackson ranted about it to a colleague, it resulted in her being moved to the wind tunnel team. As for Katherine, for years she used whatever bathroom was the nearest, before someone finally complained. She simply ignored the complaint and the matter was dropped completely. The scene where Kevin Costner’s character tears down the ’Coloured Bathroom’ sign never happened at all. To be truthful, there was very little racism at NASA once it came into being in 1958. Everyone was too focused on the work they had to do. There were a few whites who raised their eyebrows at the black presence in their midst but there were no hostilities.
The real Katherine lived to see this film about her time at NASA. In March 2019, Jim Johnson, her husband of sixty years, passed away aged ninety-three. Eleven months later Katherine, too, died at the age of one hundred and one. Jackson and Vaughan had already preceded her in death. Octavia Spencer was Oscar-nominated for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan, but Taraji P. Henson was most unlucky to miss a nomination for her portrayal of Katherine G. Johnson. Janelle Monae was also very good as Mary Jackson.
THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
I recently watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) for the umpteenth time and was again floored by the superb songs and score. Of course the animation has dated considerably since 1989. One only has to watch Moana (2016) to fully appreciate the giant strides taken in that field since the nineties, but nothing can take away from the brilliant Alan Menken score and the equally superb tunes composed by him and Howard Ashman. Menken won an Academy Award for Best Score and the two men received Oscars for their song ‘Under the Sea’. Their tune titled ‘Kiss the Girl’ was also nominated. I have never been a fan of Disney animated features, not even as a child, because I found them to contain too many rather dull songs, but this picture is an exception – the exception.
Alan Menken & Howard Ashman
Originally, Sebastian the crab was supposed to have an English accent, until lyricist Howard Ashman suggested a Caribbean accent instead, thus opening the door for calypso-style numbers such as the two songs mentioned above. Ariel’s rendition of ‘Part of Your World’ set a precedent for subsequent Disney animated musicals in which the protagonist would vocalize his or her desires early in the film. Ashman referred to it as the ‘I Want’ song, and there have been a raft of them since.
Pat Carroll was the voice of Ursula the Sea Witch
I wonder if many fans noticed that Ariel and her sisters’ tails represented the colours of the rainbow. Attina’s tail was orange; Alana’s violet; Aquata’s blue; Arista’s red; Adella’s yellow; Andrina’s indigo and Ariel’s green. In order to make her stand out from her sisters, Ariel was made into a redhead and the only one to wear her hair down. The Little Mermaid had been a Disney property since 1941, but after a bitter strike by animators that same year and the focus shifting to World War Two wartime propaganda shorts anyway, the project was shelved in 1943 for over 45 years!
Samuel E. Wright, the voice of Sebastian
A highlight of the film is the wonderful rendition of ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ delivered by the enormously talented Pat Carroll portraying Ursula the Sea Witch. Before recording the song she asked Ashman to sing it once more for her and he happily obliged. She later admitted stealing some of his body language and a few adlibs from him. Personally, I felt that she and Trinidadian Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian) turned the picture into a classic. There is a definite Tallulah Bankhead quality to Pat’s voice as Ursula. Incidentally, Ursula is incorrectly described as an octopus when, in fact, she is a squid. An octopus has eight tentacles, a squid has only six (it was more cost effective for the animators to draw six instead of eight).
For a while there was a widespread rumour (incorrect) that the priest in the wedding scene had an erection. In fact, the shot that enraged moralists was that of his knee moving underneath his tunic, but a lawsuit against Disney was filed anyway. In 2006, the Platinum Edition DVD release had the scene altered so that the priest was now standing on a platform box, his knee no longer visible through his robes. And the ‘goody-two-shoes’ brigade could breathe freely once again. Had this movie not been a raging financial success, Disney was almost certainly going to close the doors of its animation studios. Thanks to The Little Mermaid, the studio’s next four films were all Oscar-winning pictures, with Beauty and the Beast (1991) even getting nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.