Hidden Figures (Film)

Genre: Biography / Film
Main Creative Team: Theodore Melfi (director, writer); Allison Schroeder (writer)
Main Cast: Taraji P. Henson; Octavia Spencer; Janelle Monáe; Kevin Costner; Kirsten Dunst; Jim Parsons; Glen Powell; Mahershala Ali; Aldis Hodge; Olek Krupa
First Shown: 10th December, 2016
Available: Cinemas

NASA needs to figure out how to put someone in orbit and stop being racist.

This film is based on the real stories of black women in the early days of NACA/NASA, as written about in a book by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a fictional version of those events, though the general core of the story is there. My focus is on the story as presented in the film, rather than a comparison to the real events.

There are three main storylines, following the paths of the three leading characters. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a mathematical genius. When they need a computer for the main team, Katherine is the one who gets the job. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) decides to apply for a job as an engineer. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) has been working as a supervisor for the colored computers department, though hasn’t been given the job officially. She also realises their days are numbered, as NASA prepares for its first mainframe.

Discrimination is shown in a variety of ways in the film, from general society things such as separate water fountains, to the working environment in NASA. Katherine faces issues as the only black woman in a department of mostly white men. Someone sets out a coffee pot marked “colored” after she uses the general shared coffee pot. There are no toilets for black people in the building, so she has to travel back to her old work place. It’s a hostile working environment, designed to make it harder for Katherine to do her job.

Dorothy and Mary don’t face issues from their direct co-workers, but hit problems when it comes to the system. Everything is designed to make it harder for them to advance, which is explained away as only being fair. Their stories highlight how systematic discrimination means that everyone doesn’t start from the same place.

I liked that it touched on the ways that marginalised people can both help and hinder each other. Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) uses his own experiences as a Polish Jewish man to empathise with Mary. He encourages her to apply for the engineering position. On the other side, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), a white woman, does not use a shared identity as a woman to empathise with the additional issues the black women face. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), a black man, is initially dismissive of Katherine working at NASA on the basis of her being a woman. Sharing one marginalisation does not automatically mean understanding another. Intersectionality can be complicated.

I did raise an eyebrow at Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), Katherine’s new boss. His presentation seemed very much for the comfort of white audience members. He doesn’t hold racist or sexist attitudes: he just wants the best person for the job. He’s the one who eventually takes a sledgehammer to the signs on the colored bathrooms. He’s the person that white people can feel they would be, because they wouldn’t support segregation and they’d do something about it. However, it is notable that he doesn’t notice what’s going on until Katherine tells him. If any message should be taken from that, it’s that being anti-prejudice in personal beliefs is not enough to stop discrimination. Seeing what the system is doing to people requires paying attention and talking to those it impacts.

It’s a polished story, with decent pacing, and good performances by the actors. I liked all the casting choices, and noted that Karl was actually played by a Polish actor (this is an area where casting often falls down, as Western Europeans get cast for all European roles). I’d had concerns that it might be difficult to watch with the discrimination themes, but there are moments of triumph to break up the tough sections, and it ends on a positive note for the main characters. There is always a bittersweet element to this sort of story though. For every person who succeeds, there will be numerous people who never made it over those extra obstacles. For every person who gets the spotlight showing what they did, there are others who’ll remain obscure. I find stories like this a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

The Gauntlet – Karuna Riazi

Gauntlet CoverFirst Published: 28th March, 2017
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Farah and her friends get caught in a magical game. They’ll have to win challenges if they want to escape.

Farah is a quiet and analytical sort of person, who comes from a family that play a lot of games. I liked that she is Bangladeshi and a practising Muslim, who wears a hijab. This is treated in a positive way. Her friends have known her for a long time, so there’s no hostility or questioning from them (there’s some from the children from Farah’s new school, but this isn’t shown in detail).

Some of the side characters are fun, such as the giant lizard, but I wasn’t really feeling Farah’s two friends. Part of the issue was the time limit on everything they did, so there wasn’t the sort of downtime where they could talk to each other. There’s an added distance because Farah hasn’t seen them for some time and doesn’t know what to say.

When it comes to the gameplay aspect of the story, the book delivers on its promise. The game world is an elaborate clockwork construction with multiple layers. The children have to play games, solve puzzles, and all the while keep an eye on the bigger stakes. Due to them looking for Farah’s younger brother, Ahmad, there’s time for exploration of some of the world’s secrets. It’s very imaginative with a steampunk vibe. Though again, there were points where things rushed by rather quickly, as the characters weren’t in some areas long enough to really get a feel for them.

My biggest issue was with Ahmad. He’s a seven-year-old with ADHD. Before ADHD is mentioned, I thought he must be dying, because the family avoids upsetting him and doesn’t set any boundaries for him. Farah is expected to go along with anything Ahmad wants. She has to play with him instead of her friends and she has to let him win every game. Ahmad has to have presents on anyone’s birthday, though still demands to open and own Farah’s presents. When she stands up to him, she knows she’ll get in trouble if he throws a tantrum, as though it’s unreasonable for Farah to want things for herself. This is blamed on ADHD, when it’s really about how the family react to Ahmad. Added to this, Ahmad’s mind is described as maze-like, as though he’s an unfathomable puzzle to be solved. I wondered if all this might be addressed later in the book, but it isn’t.

I was down with the steampunk game, the people that lived inside it, and the overall puzzle-solving plot. I liked Farah as a main character. However, Ahmad’s treatment made me uncomfortable. It also felt like the pace moved a bit too quickly in places.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

Three Fourths Home LogoDeveloper: [bracket]games
First Release: 20th March, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Kelly talks to her family on the phone as she drives home through a storm.

This is a simple interactive story. The main story is the drive, though the extended edition also includes an epilogue and some extras. The art looks like monochrome cutouts, with the background shifting to reflect the conversations. It’s a simple and effective style. My main issue is the text was grey on white with rain cutting across it, which is not very readable.

The player chooses dialogue options during the drive to change the direction of the conversation. Choosing an option makes that what happened, such as deciding what happened when Kelly left home earlier in the day. There shouldn’t really be anything to go wrong with gameplay this simple, but the player has to hold down one of the trigger buttons for the entire game. When the button is held down, the car drives forward and the conversations continue. When it’s released, the game pauses. This is not an accessible design decision, as it can cause wrist and hand problems. I did like the way everything froze in time when it paused, but this could have been done with a single press to start the car and another press to stop it.

That criticism aside, it’s an interesting game. It’s a quiet story of family relationships. Kelly has been away from home and not kept in contact, so she’s got a lot to talk about.

Game screenshot

Image Caption: The top part of the screen has cutout-style art. Dark grey corn is in the foreground and background. A car drives along a road in the midground. In the distance, there are lighter grey power lines. White rain cuts across the image. The lower part of the screen is white, with the text: “Mom: What does that mean?” in grey with white rain cutting across it.

Mom is very critical of Kelly. It’s easy to see why Kelly avoided contacting home. Though it may come from a place of concern, it’s still done in a way that isn’t good for Kelly.

Kelly’s younger brother is Ben. It’s not stated directly, but he appears to be autistic. He has difficulty gauging the emotional reactions of the rest of the family. He’s very focused on certain interests. This might come across as a little simplistic in representation, but Ben’s stories help add some depth. He tells one story during the drive. The extras include a few more of these stories, which have themes like a sister going away forever and family problems. It’s made clear that Ben is noticing what’s happening and does care. He’s just having trouble expressing it. I did like that his interests included creative things, and changed over time, rather than assuming autistic people have one true interest forever and that interest has to be maths.

Dad had an accident at work that led to a leg amputation. Talking to him can reveal some of the issues he’s facing, such as pain management and trauma from the accident. There’s some discussion of alcoholism.

Kelly is partly shaped by the player choices, though there are things in her history that can’t be changed. The epilogue works well to expand on Kelly’s life, as it deals with the time before she came home. She’s very self-critical, in a way that doesn’t match up with reality. For example, her thoughts on her assignment are far worse than the actual assignment and teacher’s comments in the extras. A nice touch in the epilogue is the player can decide if Kelly’s partner is a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Mom does not comment on that, outside of being surprised that Kelly is dating.

It’s a short game and can be played multiple times. There are different branches through the conversations, though not to the point of it entirely changing the story. The ending is set and it’s not a happy one. This is also my main comment when it comes to the disability representation. It’s not that I had a big issue with how the characters were portrayed, as they came across realistically. But this is ultimately a tragic story, which tends to be typical rather than the exception when it comes to disabled characters. The game also lacks accessibility options, such as darker text and alternatives to holding down the drive button. Those things combined mean I liked it well enough, but not enough to go through the hand pain it causes.

Dead Air – Michelle Schusterman

Dead Air CoverSeries: The Kat Sinclair Files, #1
First Published: 1st September, 2015
Genre: Middle Grade Urban Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Penguin Random House

Kat Sinclair’s dad gets a new job presenting a ghost-hunting TV show. Kat goes with him and starts a behind-the-scenes blog, but there’s more going on than she ever imagined.

Kat is dealing with family issues. Her mother has left. This gives Kat the freedom to find her own style, such as finally being able to cut her hair and wear horror t-shirts. She also gets on a lot better with her dad and grandmother (from her mother’s side). But at the same time, she’s angry her mother left. The children Kat meets on the set also have their own family issues to face. The parents here aren’t shown as one-sided evil people or as always getting it right. They’re realistic families trying to figure things out.

The internet features prominently. Each chapter opens with things like emails, blog posts and forum comments. Kat writes her blog as well as staying in touch with friends and family. It covers the positive things, like people being able to share their interests. It also covers the darker sides, of death threats and obsessive fans. I liked that it handled those issues without making it sound like the internet was the start of them. Kat’s own grandmother had a stalker when she was younger. The tools change, but there will always be people who take it too far.

There is a dash of the supernatural here, but the heart of the story is really the people, rather than the ghosts. Kat has to deal with Oscar, who is about her age. They’re both being homeschooled by the show’s intern Mi Jin. And there’s the whole issue of why the show has such a high turnover of hosts. The mystery unfolds at a reasonable pace. It was obvious to me long before it was to Kat, but that does mean it’s something the reader can figure out.

One of the crew, Lidia, has a congenital heart condition. She has a pacemaker, takes medicine, and has seizures. I did have concerns that this might be written off as having a supernatural cause. Seizures often get shown as something mystical rather than actual seizures. That doesn’t happen here. Some things might aggravate her symptoms, but it isn’t suggested that her heart condition was due to anything other than natural causes. However, I wasn’t fond of the plot requiring the triggering of seizures, as in reality, there’s never a good reason to do this.

Kat is biracial, with a white mother and black father. Her father is the one who appears the most in the story. Mi Jin is presumably Korean American based on her name, though it isn’t stated. There’s a gay supporting character. Generally, these things are handled with a light touch. The plot isn’t focused on them, but they aren’t missable.

This is a fun ghostly adventure, with references to classic horror films, and some new creepy tales of its own. There is some discussion of death (the ghosts tend to have died in bad circumstances), death threats and related violence. It’s handled at an age-appropriate level.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.