"Three Negro women are chasing a white police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia, in 1961!" declares Janelle Monáe six minutes into the candied history pageant Hidden Figures. The film's leads, a trio of African-American mathematicians (the others: Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer) employed at NASA to perform advanced calculations in the early days of the space program, have just turned around a shakedown traffic stop from a cracker cop. Impressed at the importance of their jobs, and by their politeness, he offers to escort them straight to their Langley office, sirens blaring. A red felt Bozo bulb isn't as on-the-nose as that dialogue, but the impulse behind it rings true. How often, as you've lived your life lately, have you wondered if the freedoms you're exercising now will persist through to the 2020 election?
Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), is a canny and necessary crowd-pleaser in which not one moment feels like life itself. But, together, in their superb Hollywood falseness, they accrete into a portrait of our best idea of our national character while still exposing bitter truths about who was allowed to be what back in that age of presumed "greatness." It's subtle as Sunday School felt-board parables, each moment sweated over to communicate clearly to 10-year-olds and hard-of-hearing grandparents. But few of those moments insult the intelligence of the rest of us -- and I expect that anyone can find inspiration in the script's attention to the small, concrete steps real people make to create change. And, hey, white folks: Kevin Costner serves as an example of how to help and get out of the way.