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Hidden Figures

Year: 2017
Production Co: Levantine Films
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ted Melfi
Writer: Allison Schroeder/Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali

Hidden Figures is a story about race and discriminiation that's so easy to like and inoffensive it could be the Disney version of social commentary about racism. Not that you expect lynchings and church bombings, but it never gets any more radical and angry than Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Jensen) yelling at her NASA coworkers that they won't even share the same coffee pot as her.

Now, I'm not dissing Ted Melfi's treatment of his and Alison Schroeder's script or the Margo Lee Shetterly book it's based on - it has a story to tell and righteous race relations isn't it, even if racial discrimination was the backdrop.

But I couldn't help but be reminded a little bit of The Blind Side, where a big, potentially scary black man is tamed by being a lovable big lunkhead (see John Coffey in The Green Mile) and being virtually painted white by the love of a charitable southern family. Even though that was a true story too so I can't really blame that script, it's a very effective means to hobble black rage about the way African Americans have always been treated, assauge white guilt about it and assure itself that blacks won't be coming over the hill for their jobs and women in vengeance for slavery, mass incarceration, etc.

But that's just my politics leaching into my viewing of a movie where they don't belong - Hidden Figures doesn't set out to be about racial anger, just tell a story where it simmers a bit. The theme is actually the work of people history was reluctant to acknowledge but which was pivotal to America's advancement on the world stage.

Three African American friends with very different lives, Katherine, Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monáe) are all educated, capable and work at NASA in the early days of the space program. We first meet them on their way to work where a redneck cop gives them the kind of grief they deal with every day – sneering disrespect they just have swallow, coloured restrooms, their own section of the library and their own seats on the bus – but when they start to break out of their professional ghettoes as computers (what they call human mathematicians before the machine we now know), they butt up against the casual and institutional racism of the era.

For Mary, it's the chance to work with a visionary scientist on rocket technology if she could only get the last qualification she needs – which is offered at a school she can't attend because she's black. For Dorothy, it's being paid the same old slave wages even though she's doing the job of a department head, higher ups including the frosty Vivian (Kirsten Dunst) content to keep it that way.

And for Katherine, it's the chance to work in the nerve centre of mission operations under direct supervisor Paul (Jim Parsons) and director Al (Kevin Costner) – but where they work her harder than ever for no recognition and from where she has to walk or run all the way back to her old building to use the womens' room because there are no coloured restrooms in her department.

But rather than take up arms or protest, each of them get their shot by smartly using the institutional system to prove themselves as they toil in frustrated silence, even though their contributions to NASA's efforts are instrumental in the success of its early missions.

For Dorothy, it's when the department buys one of the big newfangled machines from IBM and it doesn't seem to want to work, giving her the chance to become the only one who knows how to wrangle it properly. Mary takes her case to local court for the right to attend her classes, and Katherine's talent for numbers becomes more entrenched and vital to upcoming launches, railing against the lack of inclusion even as her superiors slowly realise what an asset she is.

It's a feel good story through and through complete with a Hollywood happy ending and lots of very strong visual motifs that carry the message (Costner removing the restricted bathroom signs with a sledgehammer, etc). Everyone in the cast is great and the period detail looks assured, but if you like race relations dramas to have a bit more fire, you won't get that here.

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