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Hidden Figures Movie Review

By Anna Khan and Victoria King

Most films about space star the heroic astronaut! They portray the lives of astronauts relentlessly training before a gut-wrenching moment of leaving their families and taking off into the unknown. In 2016, the movie Hidden Figures, based on a novel of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, brought to the American media the true story of three brilliant unsung heroes that helped astronaut John Glenn orbit the earth for the first time. Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson beautifully portray the African American mathematicians, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson respectively. This cinematic masterpiece unveils the behind-the-scenes of one of the greatest space moments of American history. This film empowers the next generation by incorporating an underrepresented group, African American women in STEM, onto the big screen.

The beginning of the movie shows young Katherine Johnson having an extreme talent for math. The representation of young women of color excelling in STEM is incredibly important and rarer than one would expect. While representation is incredibly important, this movie accomplishes something even more vital. The success of women and minorities is often erased from history. Hidden Figures displays in an upfront way the huge strides black women have made for science despite the disrespect and disadvantages they have to endure. Throughout the movie, even the well-meaning people in the main characters' lives put down or discourage the women from their critical roles as mathematicians calculating the launch and landing of NASA’s shuttles. The man who would become Johnson’s husband, James Johnson implies that working for NASA seems like it would be too much stress for a woman.

Hidden Figures juxtaposes preconceived ideas about society and the people living in it with science. We watch the male and white characters learn that their prejudices are not supported by science. Additionally, the movie highlights the difference between the experience of white women and black women in the workplace. In the 60s, while white women were often disrespected, underestimated, and not considered for the same jobs men were, black women experienced all of this and more.

The effect of segregation on the lives of the three protagonists is immense. Due to segregation, Katherine is unable to use the bathroom in the building she works in as there isn’t a bathroom for women of color in that area. She has to take a large amount of time out of her work day to walk across campus to find a bathroom she is allowed to use. Mary Jackson is unable to join an internship because she doesn't have the required engineering qualifications from a school that does not accept black Americans. Dorothy spends the movie trying to stay ahead of the computers that she is afraid will take her job doing calculations, but she struggles as the information she needs to understand the computers is kept in a part of the library that doesn’t allow people of color.

Each of the characters shows an inspiring amount of determination to overcome these obstacles. Katherine, despite the threat of humiliation, loss of her job, and possibility of physical harm, she angrily tells off the people she worked with for how they treated her and the conditions she had to work under. To prove herself, she did extra math outside of her job. Seeing how valuable she was, her boss made an effort to change the conditions of her work environment so she can more effectively do her job. Mary appeals to the court to let her become the first black woman in Virginia to attend a white school. Dorothy teaches herself how to program the new calculators with a book to secure her job. Not only that, but she teaches what she’s learned and secures the jobs for all the other black women whose jobs have also been threatened by the new calculators at NASA. This is shown in one of the film's most powerful moments when about twenty black women walk away from what is considered their part of the campus into a building filled with new technology that nobody believed they were qualified to run.

While the movie ends on a generally positive note, it is important to keep in mind why exactly this movie is so important. While it is wonderful to celebrate the work of these women now, the message of the movie is the unbelievable injustice that these women went nearly 50 years without receiving the acknowledgment they deserved, and that the same is the truth for several women and people of color whose hard work has been overlooked or taken credit for by men.

This movie incorporates STEM aspects because it is about a space race between America and Russia. Thus, STEM is the basis of this movie. The computer scientists form prototypes, make calculations to launch and land the spacecraft, prove the calculations, make trajectories, and much more. Also, an important component of STEM is creative thinking, and innovation is the catalyst for this film. The engineers must think beyond the realm of Earth. They must think about infrastructures and math that do not yet exist, to get John into space safely and then bring him back down to Earth in one piece. The level of creativity needed to successfully build spacecraft transcends the sphere of ordinary thinking. It requires out-of-the-box thinking to solve problems and most importantly account for the problems yet to come. Another aspect of STEM is not being afraid of the unknown, particularly the power of machinery. A lot of dystopian Sci Fi films show an estranged relationship between man and machine like we cannot co-exist. However, when a new technology, IBM, arises, the black women strive to learn how to program it instead of being afraid of its supercomputing capabilities. This reinforces the importance of human-computer interaction in scientific discoveries.

In addition to STEM, JuSTEMagine promotes social and emotional learning. An important aspect of SEL is social awareness, which means showing empathy to others. Hidden Figures incorporates social awareness when the characters look beyond the rockets and see what is inside of them: the astronauts. They realize the astronauts have lives, families, and friends. Therefore, when building these spacecraft, the engineers must keep in mind that they have someone's life in their hands and work together. In one scene, some of the engineers don't want their math checked because they think it's degrading to have someone else, particularly a black woman, check over them. However, they must put their pride aside to realize this is a group effort. It doesn't take one person to get to space; it takes an entire team. The engineers must have the self-awareness of knowing their math may not be right all the time, and that’s okay. They must possess the relationship and responsible decision-making skills to let others check their work when they’re dealing with precious lives. The characters recognize their strengths and weaknesses and ultimately work together for a common goal, despite racial and gender tensions. Also, regarding racial and gender differences, social-emotional learning promotes unity. This film highlights the devastating treatment of African Americans, particularly African American women in STEM, and it leaves the audience to realize we’re all equal. We’re all intelligent and capable of doing the impossible because nothing is impossible, no matter your race or gender. The characters fight for what they believe in instead of letting the word “no” get in the way of their dreams. This movie empowers the next generation of black women to pursue STEM, regardless of all obstacles.

So, the amazing acting from Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and many others portray this heart-warming tale of African American women's prosperity! We would recommend this film to all kids in grades 8th and above, so they learn the importance of STEM, SEL, and potential careers, such as astronauts, computer scientists, engineers, and supervisors. This film made us cry and we hope it touches other people’s hearts as well.

Hidden Figures in a beautiful and inspiring movie that represents the experiences of people of color and women in science. It is a step in the process of making up for the years of mistreatment of capable people working in STEM. It depicts these amazing intelligent black women in everything, from the warm genuine moments they share with their loved ones, to the excruciating frustration we see them experience in response to their environment, to the passion they feel for their contributions to the scientific community. Above all, we should remember to appreciate all the unacknowledged female and black Americans that have worked to make our society what it is, especially; Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson.

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