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Why Hidden Figures Means So Much To Our Family

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We’re a “space family.” Ryan and I can tell you the names of the first astronauts to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; their fellow crew mate Michael Collins, orbited the moon); the name of the only Mercury astronaut who didn’t fly into space until the end of the Apollo Program (Deke Slayton); and why there’s a golf ball on the moon (astronaut Alan Shepard hit it when he walked on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission).  

We frequently watch our Apollo 13 and Space Camp DVDs. We re-enact scenes from the movies, and phrases from the movies have made their way into our everyday conversations.

“I’m going to do my math homework before my social studies,” my son tells me.

I reply, “Copy that.”

Currently, my nine-year-old son’s current favorite movie is Hidden Figures, the Oscar-nominated, 2016 film.

But Hidden Figures is different. It is more than a space movie; it’s also a race movie.

Even though the film is rated PG, my husband and I watched the DVD first and fell in love with the movie. Every Friday night, we celebrate “Fun Friday.” As a special recognition of the end of the workweek and a no-homework night, we order in food and watch a movie as a family.  So on our next weekly “Fun Friday” night, we ordered in a pizza and watched the movie all together. If you’re not familiar with Hidden Figures, the film is based on the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly and tells the story of the “colored computers” — female, African-American mathematicians employed by NASA back in the days of the Mercury program, specifically following the lives of Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson.

And yet, in all our prior space reading, we had never before learned of these women; these mathematicians who were instrumental in our country winning the Space Race.

The first time Ryan watched the movie, he had many questions. 

Why did the black women work underground, and the white women work in a bigger office with windows?

Why couldn’t she just use the bathroom down the hall?

Why was everyone staring when she got coffee?

Why couldn’t she look for a book in the library?

Of course, Ryan got engrossed in the drama and tension surrounding John Glenn’s mission. He loved the uptempo Pharrell Williams songs. And he was so caught up in Katherine Johnson’s extensive calculations, he turned his Ikea easel from the white board side to the chalk board side.

Ryan knows the facts of our country’s history back in the late 1950s and early 1960s as depicted in this film. Ryan knows our country was not always accepting of families like ours; that in fact, a marriage between my black husband and me, a white woman, wasn’t always legal. But no matter how much we’ve read and discussed this before, it was this movie that allowed Ryan to really see the prejudice and the segregation in ways that our reading about it couldn’t portray. 

These women had all the odds stacked against them. Doors shut to them based on their gender and their race. But you didn’t see them complain. You saw them take action, petitioning the court to attend a previously segregated high school to take extension courses. You saw them doing the work, and getting noticed for it.

We love the powerful scene when Katherine Johnson’s boss, Al Harrison, is exasperated at the amount of time she spends away from her desk running back and forth to a distant building to use a “colored” restroom. Mr. Harrison uses a crowbar to break down the “colored ladies room” sign. “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” he tells them all. And we cheer.

But it’s another line Mr. Harrison says that is just as relevant in our country in 2017 as it was back at NASA in the early 1960s. “We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.”

We have checked out the DVD several times from our public library, and Ryan tells me the movie is now on his Christmas wish list. My son wants to watch and re-watch an empowering, inspirational, affirming movie with an important message. 

Copy that.

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