Tuesday, November 12, 2019
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Movie review: Hidden Figures

Now on wide release in US theaters is a film about the Mercury space program at NASA, which launched John Glenn into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, specifically the role black women played in the mathematical calculations that brought Mr Glenn safely home after his flight.

Three women the film focuses on—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson—were pioneers in our scientific community, not just for African-Americans and women, but for skilled scientists and mathematicians who understand the importance of working the problem, even in the face of pre-Civil Rights America. Because of math skills these women sharpened, through education in a white male world, they earned Mr Glenn’s trust.

“I was struck by their brilliant minds and resilient attitudes,” writes Kyana Harris in the Hilltop, the student newspaper at Howard University:

Prior to seeing this movie, I was unaware of the contributions of Black women to the space race and NASA’s earlier projects. They weren’t in my history books when we learned about the space race, and were never mentioned casually. … While there is a severe lack of representation in STEM fields, Hidden Figures successfully captured the plight of the women who were unseen trailblazers in those fields and elegantly deconstructed the falsely perceived homogeneity of their careers.

But it’s not only students at historically black colleges and universities in the US who can appreciate the movie for what it can teach us.

“The movie will make you feel all kinds of things—joy, anger, even a bit of sadness—but what it will do above all is inspire you: inspire you to shoot for the moon and allow yourself to experience the journey to your dreams coming true,” writes an unnamed reviewer in The Imprint, the student newspaper at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “My only quarrel with Hidden Figures is that as a person, not just a woman, it has taken me so long to learn about these women and their amazing contributions to society.”

Well, there’s no time like the present, and lessons we haven’t learned, because they have been sanitized out of our actual history textbooks, are water under the bridge at this point.

In setting up a private screening of the movie later this month for more than a hundred ninth graders from the public schools in Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor William Bell said he wanted to stimulate girls’ interest in STEM classes and STEM-related careers.

“Our hope is for the young women to have a memorable day watching the movie and hearing from women currently working in science, technology, and math careers,” he said. “This is the first of many targeted mentoring programs that we will bring online this year. Our goal is to engage, educate, and empower each student in the city by offering opportunities like this.”

Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, and directed by Theodore Melfi, the film is rated PG and is especially appropriate for children who go to an American school. We saw the movie in Grandville, Michigan.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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