Hidden Figures Interviews: Black Girl Magic Launches NASA

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Hidden Figures Interviews: Black Girl Magic Launches NASA
Posted by Dominga Martin

December 19, 2016

The incredible true story of how a team of elite black women were pioneers as NASA’s first human computers.

America in the early 1960’s was reaching a boiling point.  It was the birth of the Civil Rights Movement.  Jim Crow laws.  Segregation.  Inequality.  Racial injustice and John F. Kennedy was President—he had big ideas and one of them was to be the leading country to land on the moon.  America was in a race with Russia to accomplish this goal.  Wheels were turning inside the brilliant minds of some of the world’s leading mathematicians, who resided at NACA, (the precursor to NASA).  Each day, a core group of men and women worked to reach an unprecedented accomplishment. Together, they worked toward one common goal, on different sides of the Langely compound.  The black side and the white side.

The area known as West Computing was the “black side.” where the world’s first human computers were getting ready to make history.  Legendary.  Sisters.  With sass, beauty and brains.  Their mathematical speed launched rocket ships, literally.  Hidden Figures is their story.

“Katherine G. Johnson”, who is still living at the age of 98 years old, is portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (Cookie EMPIRE, Oscar Nominated Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) brings this heroine to life in a bold and gentle way.  Describing her first meeting with Katherine as, the moment you feel when you await a Queen’s arrival.

Taraji: “The way I light up when I get questions about acting is how her eyes dance when she talks about math.  She wanted people to fall in love with numbers, the way she loved numbers.”

Fascinating, in deed.  Taraji carried this role with dignity and quiet strength. Katherine, who started high school at the age of 10 is a math magician.  It was her calculations that launched John Glenn around earth, successfully for the first time in history.  I held my breath watching in the theater as he orbited the earth 3 times.  Katherine’s calculations were on point and above board—John Glenn would not fly without her seal of approval.

Octavia Spencer (The Help) gives life to “Dorothy Vaughn”, the matriarch of the group, who keeps her self contained and always 10 steps ahead as she rises to become the “supervisor” of the West Computing Group, taking her crew of sisters with her.

Rounding out the sisterhood is the spit fire “Mary Jackson” (Janelle Monae).  This is the pop singer’s big screen debut and she dazzles as an ambitious black woman, with all odds against her, and the nerve to challenge a judge for a seat at an all white school so that she can become an engineer; a job reserved for men at NASA—white men.

Defying the odds is an understatement when one thinks of the accomplishments made by this trio of black women who broke boundaries at the dawn of a new era.  With their heads held high and skirts beneath their knee they stared adversity in the face and won.  These three African-American women changed space and time, literally, and although they were major assets to NASA’s inner core, their story is not written in our history books.

Hidden Figures is a film about remarkable talent, cultivated inside the walls of NASA, which was a subculture all it’s own.  NASA went against the grain during this moment in history, by overlooking race and gender to search for America’s brightest—going so far as to remove the “For Colored Sign” off the ladies room in order to make the environment equal for all, especially their most valuable players.  Hidden Figures is an American History lesson about three extraordinary women who broke barriers and changed the landscape of the world.  Without Katherine’s rapid computing skills, there wouldn’t be a John Glenn or an Apollo Mission.

At a press conference in New York City, attended by key players of the film: Director Theodore Melfi, Producer Pharrell Williams, Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Author Margot Lee Shetterly, who ironically penned the book, which the film is based on simultaneously with production.  Talk about genius (plus) girl power! — Taraji offered some insight on what it was like for Katherine to navigate the world of NASA and step into the fire of a daily fight for basic human rights.

Taraji:  “They didn’t wallow in the muck or complain [how] we complain today…yes they marched when there was an injustice or whatever, but everyday was not a march.  At some point, you’re gonna have to say: ‘This is what it is’  put your head to the ground, grind and get through it because your hard work is going to open up doors for somebody coming behind.  She (Katherine) never complained.  It just was, what it was. She didn’t sit there and go, “yeah, well you know, I had to go to the bathroom, at the…(for colored quarters).’  No, she said: ‘I just wanted to go to work and do my numbers’ and she stopped right there.” 

Margot: “These women really saw this as an everyday fight, and for me, one of the things that is in the film is certainly something that I wanted to show in the book, which is both how just boring and trite and ridiculous so much of this racism and discrimination is.  You know, it wasn’t like fire hoses in the street and the dogs [but] it was having everyone think that you’re the custodian…you know?  Things like that.  I think a lot of people [and] all of us, in some ways, have had experiences like that [and] I think being able to show that, really kind of creates a human bridge to the story.”

Margot continues: “The thing that was definitely true with these women; and having had the privilege of spending time with Katherine Johnson and the families of the other women is that —they really saw this as an everyday fight as well, and everyday victories, and they knew that every single time they put their pencil to paper and proved…really expanded the imagination of the people around them, and themselves [of what] they were capable of, what black women were and scientist were…every time that happened, they were opening the door for more people.”

“So, we have this idea of the Civil Rights Movement as like Martin Luther King and all of these things [but] this was really part of it, you know—one day at a time; by going to work and really bringing their A-Game.  Like the very best.  These women, they really did our country a great service.  They did women a great service…African Americans.  They are the American dream.”

Pharrell, who actually met Katherine 6 years prior at a STEM event, added:  “First of all I just want to say that I am super proud to be part of this project…it had so many touch points that interested me…three female African American protagonists who are not arguing, or divorcees or confronting each other, or not the token best friend—we love those parts, we appreciate them, but his was different.  This was three, African American female protagonists who decided they were engineers, mathematicians—they were technology advanced.  The idea that this also included NASA and space, two things that I’ve always been obsessed with and it happened in Hampton…yes, I lost my mind…I feel this film was meant for us and I feel so blessed to be part of the story.”

This is such a proud film to experience as a black woman, but also for young women in general to aspire to be larger than life, to empower, to change perceptions of what women can achieve in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  It is an inspiration and significant piece of American History which should be shared with students across the nation.  Hidden Figures shows the astounding ability to shoot past the stars and literally land on the moon.

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