Hidden Figures And Their Hidden Stories. Part 3

Some facts behind the 'Hidden Figures' book and movie straight from the source.

A diminutive Janelle Monae Robinson on walks into The James New York hotel in Manhattan looking every’ bit like a rock star. According to the Essence magazine, the artist is wearing her signature black and white, including a sweater that says “Prince” in block letters and round shades that, when taken off, reveal a pretty make-up free face. Monae has just flown from Atlanta, where she was up till 4 a. m. in the studio (“I am very inspired musically right now,” she says). After this, she’s getting glammed up for the Gotham Awards, where her first movie, Moonlight — a coming-of-age tale about a young man discovering his sexuality — is receiving a Special Jury Ensemble Award. (It also won Best Feature, Best Screenplay and the Audience Award.)

“When I read the script, all I could think about was finally we have a story that hasn’t been told that deals with the poor, young, gay, Black male experience,” the singer turned actress says.

If you’re a Janelle Monae fan, then you understand why the self-described storyteller, who has formally studied acting, says this part is her “dream role.” In music and fashion, she flirts with both the past and the future, from her coifs and saddle shoes to her total embrace of Afro-futurism and science fiction.

“I was obsessed with space,” Monae, 34, says. “I was a fan of Mae Jemison and wanted to be an astronaut.” She is also the only one of the ensemble who says she had a love of math. “I was once really, really amazing in math. No I wasn’t a genius, but I had talent,” she says. “Kids who love STEM are out there. We just need to be encouraged.”

In Hidden Figures, she plays Mary Jackson, a former math teacher and West Area computer who, in 1958, became NASA’s first Black aerospace engineer. Technically her title was aerospace engineer in the theoretical aerodynamics branch of the subsonic-transonic aerodynamics division at the Langley Research Center, thank you very much. (She had been invited by her supervisor to join an engineering program, but in order to do so, Jackson had to persuade the city of Hampton to allow her to integrate the graduate math and physics classes offered by the University of Virginia.) After 20 years, Jackson took a demotion to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program manager. In her role as an equal opportunity specialist, she made sure women and minorities were represented. Jackson passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.

Sisterhood is a river that runs throughout Hidden Figures. Every individual victory for Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan (all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’, by the way) was a win for the entire team — white women included. The film also did well in showing the social function of sisterhood, such as gladly supporting your girl while her star rises and admitting you, too, want to shine. “They knew that they were stronger together,” Monae says. “I think they would not have achieved the level of success they did had they not had one another.”

The irony of the film is that for all of the its focus on space and moving forward, it comes at a time when our nation.

The irony of the film is that for all of the its focus on space and moving forward, it comes at a time when our nation seems to be moving backward. Today there is a sense of history repeating itself. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Hidden Figures is that it acts as a sort of shape-shifter. In an age when the body is the default attraction on television and in the media, oftentimes to a desperately grotesque degree, there is something quietly powerful about the image of Black women mathematicians in pencil skirts working at NASA. There’s something liberating about the focus not being on a Black woman’s sexuality or servitude, but on her intellect.

“That’s why this movie is so important,” Henson declares. These women are super f—ing heroes—without a cape, without a catsuit!” The actress shakes her head. “Without a catsuit. Humph. How about that?”

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