Before #BlackGirlMagic, The Women of Hidden Figures Soared

December 30, 2016

Long before Black Girl Magic was a hashtag and trending phrase on Facebook, three unknown ladies redefined what it meant to be an unapologetically smart, ambitious, beautiful and compassionate black woman.  Their stories are now on the big screen in the sensational biographical film Hidden Figures.

I thought I knew well the story of the three groundbreaking African-American women who endured racism and broke down barriers at NASA in the 1960s.  It turns out I didn’t!  The true story is an amazing tale of strength, courage and perseverance.  It’s a film that demonstrates that long before the women’s liberation movement of the 70s, African-American professional women were shattering glass ceilings and setting the standard.

The film also shows that even in the sexist sixties, women could—and did—have it all. The movie portrays the true-life stories of Katherine Johnson, a mathematical wizard who computes the trajectory of rockets for some of NASA’s most crucial missions; Dorothy Vogel, a mathematician and computer programmer who becomes NASA’s first black female supervisor; and Mary Jackson, a superb mathematician in her own right, who becomes NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer.

Although the story is about their brilliance as scientists and engineers, and in the case of Katherine Johnson, the first African-American woman to work on the space project that ultimately sent American Astronauts to the moon, all three of the women lead full lives.  They’re educated, happily married and dedicated mothers.

As I laughed and cried throughout the movie, I was most struck by the fact that I was sitting next to my two daughters—one a recent college graduate, the other still at university—and witnessing on-screen what millions of mothers like me tell our daughters every day: that you don’t have to sacrifice who you are to be successful.  Mary, as portrayed by Janelle Monáe, is as stylish and sassy as they come, yet she can also hold her own with the smartest engineers at NASA. Not only is she extremely intelligent, but she also has the strength and courage to convince a white judge to allow her to attend a segregated high school so she can meet the requirements to become a NASA engineer.

Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson character is forced to run more than a half mile—in three inch heels no less—several times a day to use the “colored only” bathroom because she’s not allowed to use the ladies room in the main building.  Her feat is made even more herculean as she sometimes must run in pouring rain with stacks of notes. But weather be damned! She’s determined to complete her work no matter what the sacrifice or humiliation.  Johnson’s perseverance and superior math skills prove invaluable as she is the only one that a young John Glenn trust to verify calculations for his historic space flight orbiting the earth.

Hidden Figures also offers a strong lesson in sisterhood, as Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vogel stands up to her white female supervisor and refuses to be transferred to another job, which would mean leaving behind the 30 plus African-American women in her department that she trained and mentored.  And in true fashion, when Octavia’s character is ultimately promoted to supervisor, she makes sure that the women she trained are promoted as well.

It’s a refreshing reminder that women don’t have to sacrifice other women to climb the corporate ladder, and if we stick together and pull each other up, we all can succeed.

I have yet to see this year’s other Oscar Best Picture contenders, so I can’t say for sure that Hidden Figures will resonate with the Academy.  What I can say is that Hidden Figures is a stirring inspirational film that shows that even in the trying times of the 1960s, Black Girl Magic was a force to be reckoned with.


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