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Hidden Figures

hidden_figures-300x270I went to see Hidden Figures the other night. To echo what everyone who is not behind the times and has already seen the movie has said: what an amazing story about truly amazing women (if soooo Hollywoodized: Kevin Costner: “I’m a busy, busy man. I’m so busy. But segregation is wrong. So I’m gonna personally bust down this bathroom sign because ‘We all pee the same color at NASA!'” And did handsome John Glenn really hinge liftoff on real-life Katherine’s calculations? I do hope so!).

One of the previews before the movie was for Gifted (for Hollywood-gossip fans, that’s the movie that brought together as a real-life couple Captain America and Mona Lisa Saperstein, a.k.a Marcel the Shell with Shoes On). From the trailer, here is what this movie appears to be about: a white dude is surprised to discover that his young, white niece (for whom he is the guardian) is highly gifted. A rich-looking, wicked-looking, white grandmother arrives and tries to convince him that the little girl should go to a special school for gifted children. He just wants the girl to have a normal childhood, like he thinks the girl’s mother would have wanted.

Cut to a very early scene of Hidden Figures in which young Katherine Goble (who is black) is recognized as a prodigy and sent to a special school. The whole community has banded together to raise money to help make it easier for Katherine’s family to get her to this school. To paraphrase the line: “You have to see what she becomes.” And then the movie goes on, and we do see what she becomes.

I’m also reminded of a line from the wonderfully soapy TV family dramedy This Is Us. Jack and Rebecca (white parents of white boy-girl twins and a same-age son Randall, who is black) have been told that Randall is gifted and should go to a special school. Jack bristles at (among other things) the whiteness of that school, and tries to get Randall’s friend’s mom (who is black) to back him up. Her response is something like: “You want to hold Randall back because he’s black? [Jack: “No! Of course not!”] Good, because if you’re looking for someone to reinforce your bad parenting decisions, you’re going to have to find another black person.” [NB: There are several recent YA titles that continue this conversation about education, family, race, and cultural expectations: Lucy and Linh and The Hate U Give are two that come quickly to mind.]

Which is all to say (and, sure, perhaps unfairly, since Gifted is not even out yet and I’m basing this solely on the preview): check your privilege, Captain America. We should none of us be taking anything for granted right now — not education, not civil rights, not healthcare, not gender equality, not anything. Also, go see Hidden Figures. And publishers, bring on the picture book biographies of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson! As Carole Boston Weatherford said at the 2016 Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium: “We need to celebrate diverse stories that AREN’T the same twenty black people. There are so many people of color whose stories need to be heard.”

And let’s everyone continue to try our hardest to make the Hidden Figures story the norm, not the exception. Because how utterly pathetic is it that this real-life tale of three incredibly intelligent black women scientists would still be considered an extraordinary one today?

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Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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Comments

  1. Yes, he really did! As I remember in the movie, he asked for “the girl” to check the numbers–I’m pretty sure they took what he said exactly from the transcripts. (Kevin Costner’s character is a fictional character, but someone obviously knew who he meant.) But the calculations took a day and a half to check and complete, according to Margot Lee Shetterly. As for when it happened–Shetterly could not pin down an exact day and time (probably three days or so before the launch–very close, but he wasn’t sitting on the launchpad waiting for the numbers to roll in). Johnson paid a lovely tribute to Glenn when he died.

    Katherine Johnson, Margot Lee Shetterly (the author of the book), and NASA were overall very pleased with the film.

  2. Great review! I was thrilled to hear that my daughter’s entire middle school is going to see the movie next week.

    like you, Elissa, I was rolling my eyes at the Kevin Costner character, and then I saw this piece that confirmed my suspicions that his character’s anti-segregationist actions were contrived: https://news.vice.com/story/oscar-nominated-hidden-figures-was-whitewashed-but-it-didnt-have-to-be. But! I still loved the movie and was just blown away by Spencer, Henson, and Monae’s performances. And in contrast with Costner’s character, I did like the handling of Kirsten Dunst’s role. Spencer’s response to her, “I’m sure you think so…” was so satisfying.

  3. I also loved the movie, even if I did share your eye-roll at Kevin Costner bashing down the bathroom sign. Margot Shetterly reports in her great book that Katherine Johnson, in her characteristic wisdom, simply used the women’s bathroom. But I think it worked as a movie metaphor to show succinctly some of what these women were up against. And thanks for your shout out to hear more of these stories! Yes!

  4. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Harper recently published a Young Readers’ Edition of the book: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062662385/hidden-figures-young-readers-edition *AND* PW just reported a picture book in the works from Christy Ottaviano Books: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/72661-rights-report-week-of-january-30-2017.html — YAY! I also caught Taraji P. Henson’s beautiful SAG Award speech, including kind words about John Glenn. Megan, I loved that line, too, and it strikes me as so timely. Sure, you may not consider yourself a racist, but your words and actions indicate otherwise (duh). So, think about it. And do something about it.

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