By Ian Xun
Hidden Figures is an incredibly inspiring ﬁlm that you and your children should see before it exits the theatres. It is a triumphant story about the genius and foresight of black women that went untold for far too long.
The ﬁlm is set in the early 60s, and chronicles the critical work done by a group of black women mathematicians at NASA, including Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were the hidden ﬁgures, the Human Computers and innovators that enabled the United States to catch up to the Soviet Union, and eventually go on to win the “Space Race” when it landed men on the Moon.
The ﬁlm is based on the critically acclaimed book with the imposing title “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by African American Author Margot Lee Shetterly. Director Theodore Melﬁ received inspired performances from stars Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan) and Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson).
The ﬁlmmaker in me thinks the direction of the ﬁlm is a little heavy-handed at times and some of the choices were too obvious and ‘on the nose’. Examples of this are repeated forced camera moves to show the “Colored Women” washroom signs. On the other hand, this ﬁlm should be required viewing in classrooms and boardrooms. So a little repetition may be a good thing.
Despite the lofty ideals voiced in the ﬁlm by President John F. Kennedy and (the recently departed) golden boy and man with the right stuff, John Glenn, the space race was in reality not a competition to put the ﬁrst man in space. Nor was it a fulﬁlment of our dream to reach for the stars. It was war, a naked power play to determine which nation and set of ideas, capitalism or communism, would gain the high ground. No, not the moral high ground. The USA and the Soviet Union were in a race to see who would be the ﬁrst to gain the ability to wipe out its mortal enemy at a moment’s notice, using nuclear weapons orbiting in space a couple hundred miles above their heads.
This sobering historical reality about the true nature of the Cold War era space race is explored by the famous African American Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson while chatting with co-host comedian Chuck Nice on the “Cosmic Queries” episode of his podcast “Star Talk Radio.” The episode can be found on YouTube. Check it out. It is very funny and enlightening.
Hidden Figures is told against the backdrop of the titanic struggle between Cold War adversaries. The story of these brilliant African American women and their personal struggles against the injustices and indignities of racism were of no less historical importance than the battle between communism and capitalism. Their ﬁght and eventual triumph over white supremacy and sexism within the walls of NASA’s Langley Virginia campus was a victory that stands as an example for the generations that follow them. They earned a grudging recognition from the supposedly enlightened scientiﬁc/engineering establishment that genius is not the sole province of white men.
Katherine Johnson and company are shining reminders that African people’s genius is not conﬁned to music and the arts and that women can wield the beautiful power of mathematics, science and technology as capably as any man.
(Ian Xun is an award winning ﬁlmmaker, virtual reality storyteller, Tech Startup founder of jrny.us and director of the youth focused collaborative learning group, Anansi TEK Club.)
Contact Ian – Twitter: @Ian_Sun