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Hidden Figures (2017)

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Theodore Melfi directs the story of the USA/Russia space race from the perspective of some of NASA’s key players, 3 African-American mathematician women. Hence the film's double meaning I had heard of neither of the women and I doubt I’m alone in that - #OscarsSoWhite movements aside, it’s great that their role is being told on the big screen for that very reason. Dorothy Vaughan was the first African-American woman to be given the role of supervisor at NASA, and Mary Jackson was their first black female engineer. It’s the story of Katherine Johnson that it centres on though: a NASA mathematician, Johnson calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury (among others), the United States’ first human spaceflight programme. The trailer looked like there was an interesting story to tell, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t wait to watch it – although that may have something to do with Cineworld desperate to show that trailer before every film we caught last month. Thankfully, it was a good story well told and enjoyed every minute.
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Great roles for women are unfortunately few and far between. You only have to look at the lack of competition for the Best Actress Oscar front runners each year to see that. In previous years there has always been the one bookies favourite who has run away with the award in a result many could have predicted weeks in advance. That’s not to say those performances weren’t great, but it’s a real shame there haven’t been more meaty roles for women to get their teeth in to to make that a tougher choice. The same could be said for black actors, the poor representation of which at the Academy Awards recently has been widely reported and criticisaed. It’s pleasing to see those numbers have improved this year round with brilliant films such as Moonlight and now Hidden Figures acting as a vehicle for those involved. Hidden Figures puts past racial discrimination in full full view, telling the story of three brilliantly talented people capable of making a difference in a society that made it incredibly difficult to do so. I liked that the film did so without ever feeling preachy too. Some of the scenes are cringe-inducingly uncomfortable to watch back, particularly when you consider how recent this was. Having to use a separate coffee pot, using a different bus, and having to walk a mile to use an allocated toilet – there are various difficulties Johnson (played very well by Taraji P. Henson) must tackle on top of some ridiculous mathematical problems. Johnson's role in the space race was huge, and it's great as she gradually gets her moment to shine at NASA and prove her doubters wrong. As with the themes of racial and gender discrimination, Hidden Figures doesn’t shy away from the maths involved, but does so in an engaging manner that reminded me of The Imitation game. The calculation of math formulae on a blackboard (somehow) never gets boring, and even exciting when you consider what is at stake.
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Hidden Figure’s costume and set design is spot on – this feels every inch of genuine 60s America, and I badly wanted some of the furniture to take how with me. That it’s look reminded me of Mad Men is a massive compliment considering how highly I rate that show, and the various awards it received for it’s aesthetics. That feel is complimented by what would at first appear an odd pairing of Pharrell Williams, and Hanz Zimmer for the film’s music. Thankfully it worked well for me, even if I won’t be rushing to download the soundtrack (I wrote more on Zimmer when he’s on top form last year). The characters populating that world are all interesting, and the three women are all eminently likeable. Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson hops from maths, parenthood, courting, and dealing with ongoing discrimination. It's a balancing act she does really well. Neither aspect felt side-lined, and it resulted in a really well rounded central character you’re cheering for come the film’s finale. She’s flanked by Octavia Spencer (performing a similar trick to her sassy character in The Help – no bad thing), and Janelle Monáe, who always seemed to draw my attention from everything else that was going on whenever she was on screen, much like her turn in Moonlight (she’s on a run with her film choices right now!). Her Moonlight co-star, Mahershala Ali, plays Johnson’s love interest, and seems to play it simple, so as to ensure the spotlight is firmly on his female counterparts. Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons are merely there to be unlikeable clichés, but Kevin Costner was pretty decent, chomping sticks of chewing gum like a Premier League manager facing the axe. Glen Powell played John Glenn, the first US man to be sent in to space, and I thought his smirking overly nice portrayal would grate on me, but it didn’t. He comes across like a 50s movie hero: good looks, pithy lines, always in a good mood; but somehow it never got annoying and I was genuinely worried for him when things begin to go a bit pear shaped.

Hidden Figures doesn't do anything massively original, or try to break the mould. However, when you have a story this good you don't necessarily have to. It plays it straight and tells that story very well: you wince, laugh, cry and woop in all the right places. I found it really uplifting without it having to ram it's themes down it's audience's throat. To me, it didn't feel like it was playing up to the 'anti-black' Oscar bait, but it's a relief that this and Moonlight don't need to rest on those laurels as they're just great films in their own right.


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