Sunday, January 29, 2017

Enjoyed Hidden Figures? Chalk it up to the film's blackboard moments

Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble in Hidden Figures (2016)

blackboard moment


A classic film scene in which the undervalued and/or bullied protagonist effortlessly solves a problem, especially mathematical, and displays their calculations on a blackboard. Often, everyone then recognises their brilliance.

"Taraji P. Henson should have been nominated for that series of great blackboard moments."

Hidden Figures

Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Goble, a mathematician at NASA who can do analytic geometry (whatever that means). This expertise allows her promotion from 'computer', reading data and carrying out mathematical tasks, to a member of the all-white, all-male top team engaged in cutting-edge research for human spaceflight. This biographical drama is basically chalkboard moment after chalkboard moment, which I think makes the film even more uplifting.

Good Will Hunting

The classic edition. Unrecognised genius Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is employed as a janitor at MIT. A professor played by papa Skarsgård challenges his students to solve a complex mathematical problem, and Will casually (and anonymously) puts the answer up on a board. In this clip, the professor puts up another, more difficult, problem. Using a blackboard in the corridor, Will solves that one too. Cue "oh my god" moment. How d'you like them apples?


Too shy to speak up in class, Nathan is a boy genius who struggles to fit in at a maths camp in Taiwan, where he is preparing to compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad. In this scene, he screws up his courage and talks through his solution to a maths problem. This is an unusually accessible explanation - a blackboard moment for normal people. (Well, sort of.) That could have made the scene less wowing, but its emotional impact more than makes up for the problem's simplicity.


I was obsessed with Matilda as a child. Making chocolate fly into your hands and humiliating teachers? Hell yes. In this scene, Matilda uses her powers to pose as a ghost and accuse Miss Trunchbull of murder. Cool.

School of Rock

The blackboard moment that springs to mind in Jack Black's comedy about an unemployed, failing musician pretending to be a teacher is somewhat different. It doesn't quite fit the mould, but who's complaining? No one who's ever seen School of Rock will forget the scene in which he tries and fails to write Mr. Schneebly on the board.

You could also argue it has another, slightly more traditional blackboard moment. In the montage scene above, Dewey starts to become a real teacher, and uses the chalkboard to create a glorious mind map of musical genres and rock bands.

Pay It Forward (2000)

Find other examples of this trope in The Man Who Knew InfinityPay It Forward and Rushmore. A more basic version is simply equations-on-a-blackboard, which feature in countless films from A Beautiful Mind and 21 to A Serious Man and The Theory of Everything. Kevin Spacey, in particular, seems to have done loads.

A bit of Googling reveals that nerds get quite frustrated about gobbledygook on background blackboards and basic theories being used to show off a character's supposedly astounding intelligence. But in this post-truth, fake news world, I really don't mind. I always find this type of empty, 'look at this genius' stuff thoroughly enjoyable (probably also because I am clueless beyond GCSE-level maths).

Have I missed any good ones? What is your favourite blackboard moment in a film?

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