I recently co-wrote movie reviews with my brother Amahl Dunbar for Marvel’s Dr. Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – both of the Super Hero and Science Fiction genres. This review will switch gears slightly and focus on a film with more of a historical focus; Hidden Figures based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margo Lee Shetterly. The film starred Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner. Unlike the previous reviews which were done in a conversational format, Amahl and I will independently give our thoughts on what stood out to us about the film.
Amahl: In terms of Hidden Figures, I was impressed with NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). In the story, when IBM first delivers the computer to NASA, the engineers figured out how to assemble it, but they couldn’t operate it. The computer was critical for expediting NASA’s space travel calculations. Dorothy saw tremendous opportunity and acted on it. She had the foresight to learn the programming language Fortran (Formula Translation), from a book at a local library. When she demonstrated she could operate and program the computer, she was immediately promoted and transferred. She also had the foresight to teach Fortran to the other female African American mathematicians thus ensuring their long term employment at NASA. So I think her having the insight to see the opportunity in front of her and then the assertiveness to take advantage of it were huge and great teaching points. These are two very important ingredients for success.
Anwar: As a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) advocate and professional myself, a current challenge is getting African American students interested in STEM, and then empowering them to stick with it. Recently at the kickoff for the Toxicology Mentoring and Skills Development Training program’s inaugural weekend, I had a discussion with the chair of the program and we discussed the difficulties in getting minorities involved in Toxicology (and other STEM careers). At the same meeting one of the speakers noted that the majority of the time when minority students get discouraged and leave the sciences, they usually change their majors to one of the Humanities or the Arts. This is not a knock on the non-science fields but instead in part is a reflection of how the sciences are viewed by students of color – especially for those who have no STEM professionals in their families – our case as children. For me, this is the beauty of Hidden Figures.
Without giving away the plot beyond what my brother described above, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson (Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Monea) who all greatly impacted the Space Race of the early 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each of the three leads played key roles in the United States’ mission to put a man in space – optimization of the space craft (Jackson), implementation of the IMB computer to expedite NASA’s calculations (Vaughn), and performing the initial critical calculations for the astronauts’ space travel (Johnson). Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Goble Johnson seemed to be the main story line as she was central to working out the calculations for John Glenn’s orbit and re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
Hidden Figures is a valuable film in that it shows African American women portrayed in ways that we’re normally not used to seeing them in media. While she’s most known these days for playing “Cookie” on Fox’s Empire for example, Taraji P. Henson’s role as Katherine Goble Johnson is arguably a more important as it depicts an African American woman performing complex mathematical calculations impacting NASA’s space missions. Most importantly, the film highlights the contributions of African Americans to one of the United States’ most celebrated breakthroughs; manned space travel. Unfortunately prior to the movie it wasn’t widely recognized who all contributed to John Glen’s mission – something that occurs often in US History when it comes to people of color.
Hidden Figures is a very important film to see particularly for young children who haven’t decided on a career path. If they have an inkling of an aptitude for STEM, films like Hidden Figures can definitely help encourage them to pursue a STEM career. A film like Hidden Figures would have been very valuable in my own youth though I was fortunate to have the pieces in place to allow me to pursue my own careers in Pharmacology and Toxicology – environment and mentors. It’s not that way for every child/student.
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