The film Hidden Figures depicts a time not mythologically different from our own —or more specifically, the historical context of the film (which takes place in the early 1960s, just before the landmark overturning of segregation in The Civil Rights Act of 1964) was made relevant to contemporary audiences via the utilization of cinematic significations, by way of the interplay of symbolic representations of race and gender. This usage of signification was necessary to create the dramatic effect that audiences have come to anticipate from their collective experience of cinematic mythology, from the storytelling —or in this case— the retelling of a nonfiction, a recognition of the achievements of three scientists who happen to be black and happen to be female.
The production design was aseptically clean and perfectly arranged in its symmetry and purity —identical props were often present in the crash points of key shots, the hallways were always spotless, the movements of extras were seamlessly and sublimely choreographed, even the child’s drawing of her mother was aesthetically pleasing as an object of organic perfection. This was a quality that was essential in drawing attention to the films’ dramatic tensions of inaccuracies in mathematical computation and the inevitable shock value that would be experienced by contemporary white audiences in their viewing of the mythology of systemic racism and sexism (which is mythological to them as it can only be symbolically represented and never experienced as a pure reality). The aseptic whiteness of the production design carried a subtext that whispered into the subconscious of the viewer, “This is not our reality as we know it today. Our Golden Age could have been perfect if it was not for our lack of progress in science, gender equality, and racial equality.” It is almost as if the film itself has appeared at a time when Americans are in dire need of reassurance that these boundaries have been overcome —the film serves as a means of sublimating our collective desire for social justice.
Monumental statues —themselves being phallic symbols of white masculine domination over ethnic and gender minorities— were seen throughout the film on campuses, near courthouses, and other significant locations. These monumental statues indeed exist in our present day society from the exact same cinematic vantage point from which the audience views them —that is to say, these statues are presented on screen in their ‘real’ life state, which is that of a perfected phantasm, a monument to the simulated history of America. The three women scientists also partake in bourbon or some other dark liquor at one point in the film, which is in itself a symbol of masculinity and particularly of white privilege (one is reminded of the mention of 'white man's burden' during the bar scene in Kubrick's The Shining). Their dark liquor is kept hidden away in a mason jar, which carries its own symbolic connotation of the clandestine male domination of America, which has arguably been achieved with the aid of the rampant proliferation of pleasures and intoxications. The phallic monuments are significations of the pain of male domination over the black women and the brown liquor serves to mute the effects of that pain much in the same way whiskey will cause a man to lose his ability to achieve a firm erection, an erection that can sexually satisfy a female or harm one.
There is a key point of symbolism in the film when the lead character, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji Henson), spontaneously attends a meeting with high ranking military and government officials and she is handed a piece of white chalk so she can calculate the re-entry coordinates of John Glenn’s spacecraft. The hand off of the small piece of white chalk was shown with the chalk almost dead center, and the hands of Kevin Costner and Taraji Henson at complementary points of interest on the screen. The image served two specific means, although other meanings could easily be extracted from the image. First of all, Costner’s character did not suffer a xenophobia about handing Henson an item, yet this was not actual skin contact, but a vicarious experience of sensuality for the military personnel, a skin contact by proxy for Costner's character —much as a child imagines her lips touching those of her crush when she drinks from his cup. This is the climax of the emotional tensions experienced between these two characters. There is also a second meaning to be extracted from this gesture, the message was a silent means of granting the permission to Katherine Johnson to humiliate the gathering of powerful white men with a symbol of their inferior sexuality, to beat them at their own game of calculation with a tiny piece of white chalk—this was the moment of the revelation of Katherine Johnson’s powers of computation, her perfect 'blackboard moment', where her own genius as a mathematician was laid out on the chalkboard before the high ranking officials. This was her subjugation of these men —but granted only with the permission of a high ranking, powerful white male.
The ultimate message of Hidden Figures, perhaps created unconsciously or as the result of an intellectual backfire by director Theodore Melfi, is that of a subtle piece of propaganda showing white and black audiences that our world could be perfect if it were not for our problems of racism and sexism, which are perhaps the result of a decline in intellectual faculties and reasoning —that is to say that rampant xenophobia and misogyny are the products of the stupidity of white males, although admittedly downplayed as male stubbornness in the film— however, Hidden Figures itself is littered with reminders that white domination is in fact our reality and that throughout American history the imbeciles have always decided exactly when freedoms will be handed to the ethnic and gender minorities for their use as a means of intellectual expression. In other words, the film declares the reality of the theme of white domination throughout American history, and rather than confronting the evils of capitalism directly, the film welcomes blacks and females as conspirators in the evils of capitalism —such as the destruction of the environment, such as class exploitation and the erasure of the third world and the cold war on communism. The audience is hoodwinked into thinking the film is a celebration of the achievements of these three women, when in fact it is an inadvertent celebration of their subjugation at the hands of white men—a message to which the viewer is comfortably, never overtly made aware.
I was very fortunate to see R.L. Burnside perform when I was 13. I was fairly unfamiliar with his music at the time, but the show changed my ideas about guitar playing. I had heard his collaboration with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, An Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which was good, but I was unfamiliar with his music, the music of his family, the traditions of the Northern Mississippi style for which he was known —I was completely unprepared for what I was to experience at that show. R.L. performed with his son Cedric on drums and Kenny Brown on slide guitar. The show was legendary. He hit the stage at about 10 P.M. and played without a break until 2 A.M. I have never seen anything of this magnitude since then.
I didn’t know it when I was in the moment, experiencing this music, but Burnside’s guitar was tuned to the same ‘Spanish’/Open G tuning that a number of the Paganini Sonatas I was learning were written in. The big revelation came when I was studying his music and realized that simply from watching him for four hours straight, I had learned exactly where to place my fingers to recreate these sounds of Northern Mississippi blues. As it turned out, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and so many others had also performed in this key. It wasn’t long before I not only set about learning Burnside’s music, but started to learn songs like ‘Boogie Chillen’, ‘If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day’, ‘Rollin’ n’ Tumblin’, and other classics of the genre. Burnside was the gateway to Junior Kimbrough (who was appropriated for white audiences by The Black Keys), T-Model Ford, Lurrie Bell, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Junior Wells, Robert Nighthawk, Hound Dog Taylor, and literally a hundred other musicians.
Aesthetically, Burnside’s music was pure —no sociopolitical or spiritual pretensions lyrically- the hypnotic rhythms and his voice had more soul than anything I had heard at the time. I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to this at the age of 13, it may have saved me from MTV and hip-hop. I consider this to have been a key experience during the formative years of my psyche, another formative experience for which I am eternally grateful. R.L. Burnside died when I was 22 years old, when I was in college studying engineering and computer science.
I discovered Webern’s music as I entered into juvenility. I was about 12 years old —maybe 13— and his music represented a loss of innocence for me, a peering into not just adulthood or maturity, but also into a developmental stage where the rational ceased to exist —or ceased to be of significance. Temporality existed in Webern, but not as regular pulsations or as carefully metered out divisions and mensurations; while there was a deliberation to Webern’s music on a microcellular level, the bodily sensations his compositions invoked in me were abstract —both angular and obtuse emotional responses and non-responses to carefully crafted and executed musical ideations.
Frank Zappa once remarked that he could not believe anybody would ever attempt to write music like Webern's. My own impression was similar upon hearing the marcia funebre from his Opus 6. The material was quiet and lyrical but also emotionally muted. The opening bass drum rumble and the hypnotic urgency of the bells sounded almost like something from an alien culture out of science fiction. The delicate melodic fragments played by the woodwinds were light years ahead of what I later discovered Stravinsky to have composed during the same year in The Firebird. The movement’s culmination in a crescendo of percussion instruments —cymbal, bass drum, timpani— aesthetically traumatized me at the time and left me cold. All I could imagine were the tragedies and atrocities of the 20th century, almost as if Webern, who had written this piece in 1909, had somehow prophesied the wars and the cultural and technological revolutions that would lead to the decay of the late-20th century of my own childhood and adolescence.
One might say that Webern’s marcia funebre was the soundtrack to my growing awareness of the actuality of American culture at the time —a culture obsessed with its own illusory processes of intoxication, collapse and extinction— a culture which I have ultimately failed to come to any terms of reconciliation with as both an artist and composer.
Van Jones' comment that this election, this aftermath, is a "whitelash", effectively draws our attention to the most important facet made apparent by the exit polls -the reality that the new president was elected by a predominantly white, uneducated, lower class, group of men. President Trump is essentially, their mirror, the reflection of their own "American-ness." Those qualities of arrogance, abuse, hate-mongering, indulgence in creature comforts, and the infinitely volatile combination of ignorance and ineptitude, are the qualities of the typical American that have been bred by the system itself. Education has been dismantled -higher education is expensive, the proliferation of the Internet meme, with its cheapness, has coincided with the proliferation of the free reign of ignorance. The political process itself is illusory and delusional -the Legislative branch is essentially corporate controlled, by proxy, via lobbyists and bribes; while voters are marginalized by lack of accurate information depicted within the extremely polarized and antipodal points of corporate media, social media, and liberal media. Arts and culture have been completely brushed off and diminished -reality TV reigns supreme, along with the rise in delusional narcissism (the selfie, the tweet -the digital/cosmetic modification of self-image, so to speak); the surplus of aesthetic commodity has given way to a devaluation of art and music and literature and cheap hypercommodities are now consumed in greater amounts (essentially nothing but an aesthetic and intellectual culture of quantity over quality, style over substance).
Inside of this climate, this orbit of information, this carnival, this path of cannibalization leading into the abyss - how could anyone actually marvel at the whitelash, as if the impossible has occurred? It has been staring at us from the lukewarm afterglow of our LCDs for nearly a decade, to question, "How is this possible?" and to express stupefaction, is to acknowledge the shock of being made aware of our collective participation in the matter -our failure to see that reflection staring back at us, caused by our love of self that contributed to our lack of guilt. . .until now. How is this a surprise? How could one not have foreseen this outcome if not due to some great dose of denial coupled with aloofness? The whitelash was inevitable.
Composer, Artist, Writer