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Film review: ‘Hidden Figures’ adds up to an uplifting drama about space and race

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated drama highlights the early contributions of black female mathematicians to the American space programme.

The best sequences in the superbly written Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, involve washroom behaviour. Every time she needs to relieve herself, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) must skedaddle from her desk at the National Space Aeronautics Administrations office, sprint across the driveway, rush into another building some distance away and dive into its basement.

Katherine is a gifted mathematician, whose work on the space programme at NASA will eventually prove to be ground-breaking. But she is also black, NASA is in the segregated state Virginia, and there are separate bathrooms, workplaces and canteens for whites and blacks. When future astronauts come for a visit, the NASA employees are arranged into colour-coded queues, with Katherine and the other black women working as human computers at the end of the line.

The repeated motif of Katherine’s toilet visits is a shorthand for the contradictions of American society in 1961. Even as the country tries to catch up with the former Soviet Union and send astronauts into space, its black citizens continue to be held back by deeply embedded racial discrimination on the ground. Are the Russians the real enemy, asks a movie greenlit during the Obama era but most apt for the Age of Trump.

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Hidden Figures.

In tracing the contributions of black mathematicians to the space programme, Hidden Figures throws another element into the mix – gender. The triumphs of Katherine, fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) are double-edged, best captured in a dialogue exchange after the successful launch of the first American human spaceflight Friendship 7. Now for the Moon, says space programme head Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). We’re already there, replies the moist-eyed Katherine.

The screenplay, by director Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder, draws a crossweave through the domestic lives of its three female characters, their rise out of the coloured section into spaces that are not ready for them, and the drama at NASA, which is under pressure to prove itself. Costner’s nicely underplayed character recognises Katherine’s worth, and briefly has a white saviour moment over the toilet break issue. For Harrison, the deadline, rather than an acknowledgement of the civil rights movement that is beginning to gather force beyond NASA’s walls, is more important than black empowerment. But even he recognises that integration, not segregation, is what will truly make America great.

Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.
Janelle Monae (right) as space engineer Mary Jackson in Hidden Studios. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.

The depiction of the private lives of Katherine and Mary are rose-tinted, but they are also a tribute to female solidarity and a reminder of the struggles that black women face on the home front. A sub-plot of Katherine’s romance with Lieutenant Colonel Johnson (Masherala Ali) is a charming distraction from the ugliness she faces at work, best expressed in the thump of the files dumped daily on her desk by an openly contemptuous colleague.

Even though the intertwined upward trajectories of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary never waver, their victories are hard-won. Dorothy’s campaign to be made a supervisor is opposed by her superior, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), while Mary fights to be admitted to an engineering college and earn the degree that will allow her to be employed full-time by NASA. The solid writing, accomplished performances, with Henson and Spencer topping the list, the faithful period reconstruction of the early years of the Space Race (including a reminder of the time when humans were called computers) and Peter Teschner’s skillful editing elevate the drama into something more than an attempt to make an Oscar-baiting and uplifting movie about black empowerment. Just like NASA is feeling its way around space, one rocket at a time, the women in Hidden Figures are launching minor revolutions on the ground, one mathematical formula at a time.

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Modern home design trends that are radically changing living spaces in India

From structure to finishes, modern homes embody lifestyle.

Homes in India are evolving to become works of art as home owners look to express their taste and lifestyle through design. It’s no surprise that global home design platform Houzz saw over a million visitors every month from India, even before their services were locally available. Architects and homeowners are spending enormous time and effort over structural elements as well as interior features, to create beautiful and comfortable living spaces.

Here’s a look at the top trends that are altering and enhancing home spaces in India.

Cantilevers. A cantilever is a rigid structural element like a beam or slab that protrudes horizontally out of the main structure of a building. The cantilevered structure almost seems to float on air. While small balconies of such type have existed for eons, construction technology has now enabled large cantilevers, that can even become large rooms. A cantilever allows for glass facades on multiple sides, bringing in more sunlight and garden views. It works wonderfully to enhance spectacular views especially in hill or seaside homes. The space below the cantilever can be transformed to a semi-covered garden, porch or a sit-out deck. Cantilevers also help conserve ground space, for lawns or backyards, while enabling more built-up area. Cantilevers need to be designed and constructed carefully else the structure could be unstable and lead to floor vibrations.

Butterfly roofs. Roofs don’t need to be flat - in fact roof design can completely alter the size and feel of the space inside. A butterfly roof is a dramatic roof arrangement shaped, as the name suggests, like a butterfly. It is an inverted version of the typical sloping roof - two roof surfaces slope downwards from opposing edges to join around the middle in the shape of a mild V. This creates more height inside the house and allows for high windows which let in more light. On the inside, the sloping ceiling can be covered in wood, aluminium or metal to make it look stylish. The butterfly roof is less common and is sure to add uniqueness to your home. Leading Indian architecture firms, Sameep Padora’s sP+a and Khosla Associates, have used this style to craft some stunning homes and commercial projects. The Butterfly roof was first used by Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who later designed the city of Chandigarh, in his design of the Maison Errazuriz, a vacation house in Chile in 1930.

Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Skylights. Designing a home to allow natural light in is always preferred. However, spaces, surrounding environment and privacy issues don’t always allow for large enough windows. Skylights are essentially windows in the roof, though they can take a variety of forms. A well-positioned skylight can fill a room with natural light and make a huge difference to small rooms as well as large living areas. However, skylights must be intelligently designed to suit the climate and the room. Skylights facing north, if on a sloping roof, will bring in soft light, while a skylight on a flat roof will bring in sharp glare in the afternoons. In the Indian climate, a skylight will definitely reduce the need for artificial lighting but could also increase the need for air-conditioning during the warm months. Apart from this cleaning a skylight requires some effort. Nevertheless, a skylight is a very stylish addition to a home, and one that has huge practical value.

Staircases. Staircases are no longer just functional. In modern houses, staircases are being designed as aesthetic elements in themselves, sometimes even taking the centre-stage. While the form and material depend significantly on practical considerations, there are several trendy options. Floating staircases are hugely popular in modern, minimalist homes and add lightness to a normally heavy structure. Materials like glass, wood, metal and even coloured acrylic are being used in staircases. Additionally, spaces under staircases are being creatively used for storage or home accents.

Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)
Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on Flickr.com)

Exposed Brick Walls. Brickwork is traditionally covered with plaster and painted. However, ‘exposed’ bricks, that is un-plastered masonry, is becoming popular in homes, restaurants and cafes. It adds a rustic and earthy feel. Exposed brick surfaces can be used in home interiors, on select walls or throughout, as well as exteriors. Exposed bricks need to be treated to be moisture proof. They are also prone to gathering dust and mould, making regular cleaning a must.

Cement work. Don’t underestimate cement and concrete when it comes to design potential. Exposed concrete interiors, like exposed brick, are becoming very popular. The design philosophy is ‘Less is more’ - the structure is simplistic and pops of colour are added through furniture and soft furnishings.

Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)
Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)

When building your home, it is important to use strong and durable materials. A value-added premium product with high compressive strength, Birla Gold cement is used to make tough, impermeable concrete that sets quickly, lasts long and minimises cracking. Its durability will ensure that your dream home always looks new and the steel structure inside remains protected. Birla Gold offers variants that are optimised for different needs. The unique hydraulic binding properties of the Birla Gold Premium cement variant prevent seepage, making it resistant to even corrosive water, especially important for houses in coastal cities. The Birla Gold Royal cement variant provides very high strength and is perfect for the foundation. As the video below says, with the different varieties of cement that Birla Gold offers, you can build the home of your dreams.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Birla Gold Premium Cement and not by the Scroll editorial team.