When I walked out of the theater after seeing Hidden Figures last weekend, a guy and a girl in their late teens were walking next to me and I overheard their conversation.
The guy said he couldn’t remember the last time he cried in a movie, and when the girl asked why, he replied, “Out of joy! It made me so emotional that Katherine Johnson finally got the recognition she deserved.” The girl apparently still didn’t get it, and he explained passionately, “Look, a thousand people could have taken John Glenn’s place, but there was only one person who could get that astronaut into space: Johnson. Why haven’t we heard about her before now?”
After hearing this from the mouth of a young, white guy in a hoodie and baggy-seated jeans, I found myself tearing up out of joy, too.
Hidden Figures, about three black female mathematicians at NASA who were key figures in the space program that sent the first American astronauts into space has been #1 at the box office for the second weekend in a row, blowing yet another biased belief that a movie starring women (and African-Americans, no less) can’t be a box office hit.
The three women depicted in the film, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were among the first African-American women to hold high-ranking positions in NASA. In 1949, Vaughan became NACA's (later NASA) first black supervisor and expert FORTRAN programmer. In 1958, Jackson became NASA's first black female engineer — after petitioning the court (and winning) to take graduate classes at a segregated school. And in 2015, Johnson received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to rocket science (like calculating flight trajectories for space missions to bring back the astronauts alive).
In 1961, the U.S. was sprinting for the finish line to outdo the Russians in the space race, and in order for NASA to leap ahead, its physicists, mathematicians and engineers had to think in a way they had never thought before. And to do that, they had to do away with their prejudices allow one of the best brains in the building to contribute, which meant allowing a black woman to work alongside white men. Had the space race not been so dire (the government was afraid that if the Russians dominated space, their satellites would be spying on Americans), would these biases have been so quickly torn down?
Similarly, in wartime 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which was meant to prohibit racial discrimination in the national defense program. It stated that "there is evidence that available and needed workers have been barred from employment in industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color, or national origin, to the detriment of workers' morale and of national unity.”
Shortly after, NASA started actively hiring African-American women to work as human “computers” — people, generally women, who literally computed complex math equations by hand. Again, it seems that racism, sexism or any other kind of prejudice is easily tossed aside when the person or group needs something badly enough. Suddenly, prejudice doesn’t matter.
Between a presidential executive order essentially banning racism in the workplace in the ‘40s and years (from the ‘60s on) of evidence at NASA that black women are more than capable in STEM, today’s tech and science industries should be fully diverse and filled with equal respect, right?
But Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist who was the 63rd African-American woman to earn a PhD in physics, has one issue with this movie: “...one of my anxieties about [Hidden Figures] is that people will walk away from it and situate it in the 1960s, not 2017.” She goes on to ask why “the press hasn’t gone adamantly after the black women mathematical scientists of today.”
When we don’t tell the stories of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan — and all the other women of color — each new generation of young girls simply doesn’t have role models to show them what is possible.
The good news is that this movie is inspiring people who, like so many of us, had no idea that African-American females were not only working at NASA, but in pivotal positions:
This past weekend (the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, no less), Techbridge, an after-school STEM program for girls, hosted a special showing of the movie for 200 girls and their families. One 10-year-old girl said about the movie, “I really liked it, and it was a lot of fun to see how one person could do all that math.” The group took pictures at the event (see below) and sent them to Katherine Johnson.
- Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughn, posted on her Instagram account that she had bought out an 8 p.m. showing last weekend at a movie theater in a low-income area of Los Angeles so that people who couldn’t afford it could see this important and inspiring film.
A 13-year-old girl, Taylor Richardson, raised $5,221 on GoFundMe to allow 100 girls in her community to see the movie (with popcorn, a drink and candy, plus a copy of the book the film is based on). Her goal was actually $2,600, but in just two weeks enthusiastic donors doubled that.
Black Girls Code, a nonprofit that provides technology education to black girls, created FutureKatherineJohnsons to spotlight 14 girls who are pursuing STEM fields after being inspired by Hidden Figures. Valerie Allen, the organization’s west coast program manager, says, "[We want them to say] 'tech looks like me.'"
NPR talked to a few girls about the movie, like one 15-year-old who said, “That was one of the best movies I've ever seen (laughter). It was a really inspiring movie. It was so interesting to see women who look like me during that time period do something that I am interested in doing in my life.” A 17-year-old girl who is interested in computer science said the movie inspired her to apply to college for a computer science degree: “...the most amazing thing and, like, the best message about the movie, that there's so many people we don't see in the mainstream media. But when we kind of take a deeper look, we can see how much people like Katherine Johnson can make a difference....”
Inspired by Katherine Johnson and the other brilliant women in Hidden Figures, IBM plans to “shine a spotlight on hidden figures from science, technology, engineering and mathematics stem to act as role models for the next generation.”
It’s amazing what happens when young people see themselves, not only in major motion pictures, but in science, technology, engineering and math careers. The light of hope, the passion of inspiration and the concrete steps needed to achieve a goal are so much easier when you have specific role models to show you that it can be done.
About Selena Templeton
Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.