On Sunday, February 26th, several meaningful and poignant films and the actors who appear in them are in the race for America’s highest honor in cinematic achievements. Winning an Academy Award, also known as an Oscar, is the most epic accolade bestowed upon a film or actor. Those nominated receive near instantaneous respect both inside the film industry and from everyday movie-goers.
The 2016 Academy Awards were criticized for the lack of diversity amongst the nominees and winners. Fast forward to 2017 and it is evident from one look at the films nominated that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts forth its best effort in making a dramatic step in the right direction.
One of the films featured in the nominations this year is Hidden Figures – a significant story that shows the immense influence three females had in NASA’s space exploration program. As the story unfolds, it tells a narrative about how racism and discrimination made it nearly impossible to allow these gifted mathematicians to contribute their gifts and talents to the space program simply because they were African American women.
Hidden Figures is a true story set in Virginia during the 1960’s and while America raced to beat the Russians into space. It focuses on Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, a widow and math prodigy, Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, an independent mother of two, striving to perfect the working mother role, and Octavia Spencer expertly cast as Dorothy Vaughan, a maternal character who leads a team of women that completed complex calculations while also sporting an impeccable knack for learning.
These three women worked alongside a group of other African American women who served at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the Civil Rights era. They were known as the “colored computers.” Their efforts aided NASA with the computing power it needed to help in America’s space exploration program.
Katherine Johnson was the first of the three women to be promoted to the Space Task Group. Her presence in the group is noted not for the legitimacy of her inclusion, but for the fact that she was both female and African American. She was provided with her own “colored” coffee pot and often removed her name from the credits of her own reports. The lead scientist Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, bears a layer of empathy not typically expected in experts at his level during this time period. He was struck with Johnson’s talent and driven to anger when he realized she took long breaks from her desk simply to walk a half mile to the nearest “colored ladies room.” He abruptly took action by removing the sign and delivered a memorable line saying, “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color.” Johnson’s work was valued by John Glenn as he agreed to liftoff only if Johnson’s calculations were used. He delivered a now infamous quote before he boarded the Mercury Capsule Friendship 7, “Get the girl to run the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”
Mary Jackson was pretty and feisty. Her character didn’t accept the discrimination that she and her peers were up against. She dreamed of being an engineer and clearly had the brain and abilities required for such a task. Jackson was denied the ability to apply for a job opening as it required further education that she wasn’t able to gain due to segregation. With the encouragement of her friends and even her very reluctant husband, she sought permission from the court to take night classes that provided her with the education she desired so she could ultimately climb the proverbial ladder.
Dorothy Vaughan didn’t consider herself a second-class citizen. She was confident in who she was and also in the women who worked under her direction. Her work was not recognized by her supervisor, Mrs. Mitchell, played by Kirsten Dunst. Vaughan proactively educated herself after taking note that the role of human computing would soon be replaced by computers themselves. She shared her knowledge with the women that worked alongside her, solidifying their relevance within the NASA program. She eventually delivered a gutsy throw-down on the level playing field of the freshly pronounced equality in the women’s restroom. She did in fact land her well-deserved promotion, but only after accepting the role if she could bring along the women she’d mentored and schooled on the new computer systems.
The significance of the story and its historical relevance is weighty throughout the entire film. It’s hard to believe that the contributions of these three women was not widely known until this motion picture and Margot Lee Shetterly’s recently released book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Somehow, the fact that it isn’t a story we have read about in history books, makes it even more substantial.
While this isn’t a movie that your littlest ones will want to sit through, it’s imperative that we as parents not miss the importance of the themes depicted – especially in today’s current climate. Certainly, this is about overcoming adversity, race relations and the empowerment of women. Even more so though, it shines a light on how hurtful we as human beings can be to one another when we type-cast and exclude others based on our differences. There are biblical truths that we ignore when we put ourselves and our stature in society above any other human for any reason. We’re so much further than the cultural divide of the 1960’s, but without truly knowing and understanding even the hard parts of our history as a nation, we could bear the burden of repeating it. Films like these are a reminder of the simple foundations of our faith that we are called to teach our children and are worthy of the highest honors in cinematic achievements.