Hidden Figures: Story of a victory over white supremacy and sexism

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