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February 2017


"Hidden Figures"

(20th Century Fox, 2016)


What are the big take-aways?


To my mind, the uplifting film “Hidden Figures” is three suspenseful (even though you think you know how they all turn out…) movies in one. In some ways, it is as much of a NASA space-race story and a story about the elegant charisma of practical mathematics as it is a civil rights story. It’s full of leadership lessons because it’s full of characters taking initiative in uncharted territory (in space, science, gender equity and race relations).


The movie is based on the actual events reported in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. It depicts the friendship, and the personal and professional lives, of three African-American women who worked at the Langley Research Center in 1961, when the U.S. was trying to catch up to a surge in space exploration triumphs of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. was desperate to get a man – astronaut John Glenn – into orbit around the earth. (In the film, NASA is still racially segregated in 1961, but my internet research indicates the agency had been desegregated when it changed from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a couple of years before.)


Why do I like it?


What I like about this film is the same thing that many people seem to comment on in their reviews of “Hidden Figures”: it’s almost unbelievable that this powerful information about these potential role models had been largely ignored for half a century, and it’s thrilling to see it get due attention – especially via the performances of such superb actors. While a tad manipulative and righteous at times (e.g., the music choices, the flawlessness of the characters and the sets, a key historical inaccuracy, etc.), the movie nonetheless covers a lot of complex ground with clarity and emotional nuance. I was left feeling inspired and elevated, and hoping lots of kids everywhere in the world are sparked in their imaginations about what’s possible for themselves by learning about these heretofore uncelebrated STEM pioneers. (STEM is the acronym for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.)


I also liked being provoked into more curiosity about the protagonists. The three real-life women featured as characters in the film were: mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (1920-2008), who managed human “computers” and served as a machine-computer programmer for NACA/NASA from 1943 to 1971; Mary Jackson (1910-2005), who originally worked for Dorothy Vaughn, then became NASA’s first black woman aeronautical engineer, and retired from Langley in 1985; and Katherine Goble Johnson (age 98), who was a mathematical genius who – according to Wikipedia – “calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program.” Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.


One of the moments in the movie that particularly piqued my interest was when John Glenn is portrayed as asking specifically for Katherine Johnson to re-calculate his space capsule’s re-entry trajectory from orbit, because the mathematics produced by the IBM machine computer are considered by launch engineers as less trustworthy than her numbers. While paraphrased for dramatic effect in the film, the basic fact of John Glenn’s request is true.


In what situations would this be useful?


For leaders of all personal or professional backgrounds, this movie would be useful as a boost to follow timeless advice: be yourself, stand up for your values and vision, and be willing to take the risk of being “the first” at anything in which you deeply believe.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Obviously, there’s the book the film was based on, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow, 2016).


I’d also recommend the first 22 minutes of this “What Matters” WHRO program from 2011, which features a short biographical video about Katherine Johnson, followed by an interview of her. In it, she discusses her childhood, how she became a NASA “computer,” why John Glenn asked for her to hand-check the machine-generated mathematics for his first flight orbiting the earth, and – as a former education professional – Johnson also shares some of her thoughts on the intersections of gender, teaching and learning.


For the latest research on how young children are when their gender stereotyping about intellectual ability begins, see this study that came out last week in Science magazine. A very accessible summary of the findings was written by the Associated Press.


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