10 things I learned from watching “Hidden Figures”

by | Dec 2, 2016

On Monday I had the chance to see an early showing of the film “Hidden Figures,” which is based on the story of three black mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Janelle Monáe) and Mary Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

The three were computers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Langley Research Center during the Space Race, and their computations were integral in calculating flight trajectories for the NASA shuttle launches that helped the US reach orbit and, ultimately, put a man on the moon.

Hidden Figures will be released to select audiences on Christmas Day. Without spoiling the film, here are ten real world takeaways that make it worth the watch:

1. Never judge a book by its man-made cover. In “Hidden Figures”, all women — black and white — occupy subordinate roles at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They are mathematicians tasked with making routine computations. They are secretaries who perform administrative assignments for their male bosses. No matter their position, the women are told to dress conservatively and not given a fair chance at upward mobility. In a male-dominant culture, they are indirectly told that they are lesser than.

But thankfully, these hardworking women didn’t doubt their own abilities or intellect. Instead, they put their heads down and worked to defy the stereotypes about women of their day. Their effort was a necessary part in building a more progressive America. Just because someone tells you to stay in a box doesn’t mean you actually have to stay there.

2. Don’t underestimate black women specifically. At NASA, black women were the lowest on the totem poll — white women were their supervisors. Although neither group had clout, there are several moving scenes that capture black and white women jockeying against one another for the slightest opportunities to advance.  

The intersectionality of being both black and a woman is artfully explored in the film. Despite their added disadvantages, there are pivotal moments when black women characters prove they’re just as good — if not better — than any other group at NASA. In the movie theater, which was filled with mostly black moviegoers, a few scenes sparked widespread applause. I clapped because, like others, I was proud to see such wit and determination.


3. Ask yourself, “how can I fill a void?” If you add true value, you’re indispensable — it’s that simple. White people at NASA, and all over the country, didn’t necessarily want to give black people jobs, but they had to. The black women in the movie first convinced themselves that they were valuable, were motivated by their desire to earn a living and wisely remained conscious of the ways they could fill voids at NASA. As long as they were advancing NASA’s mission, they’d stick around whether their superiors really liked them or not.

Their will is something everyone can learn from. Regardless of what you do, there will always be people who don’t like you or what you stand for. That’s why you have to mind your own business, ask yourself the right questions and only worry about how you can work to answer them.

4. Hard work means sacrifice. Of course, NASA wasn’t a nine to five job for most of the mathematicians, scientists,  or those that support them in their efforts to get to space. When you’re in a space race against the Soviet Union — during the Cold War, no less — making sure you’re home for dinner isn’t high on your priority list. You have to sacrifice, and that’s ok.

If real achievement were easy, everyone would reach or surpass their potential. But we know that doesn’t happen. Time is both precious and limited. Putting in the work requires you to give up moments with friends and family, or doing things you find more fun than work. The real question is this: how badly do you want to be successful?



5. We all need a support system. The people at NASA pushed themselves extremely hard, basically to the point of exhaustion. No human is a machine, so on the brink of burnout, NASA employees had to lean on one another to make it through.

A support system is crucial. It helps us stay motivated and find the energy to keep moving forward when we think there isn’t any energy left. Being open to physical and emotional support isn’t easy, but no matter how strong you think you are, you’ll always need it.

6. Black men need to support black women. The film has interesting exchanges between black men and women. Initially, the black men don’t take the women’s dreams too seriously, underestimating them just like white people did. They were quick to write off the ambitions of their female counterparts as unrealistic simply because black women hadn’t reached such heights yet. They eventually came around, but they should’ve never questioned black women to begin with.

Black women are the backbone of black families and black culture — they have been throughout history. Yet, they are victims of the same double standards that plague women of other backgrounds. We black men still fall short of giving black women the respect they’re due — at least I know I do.

7. Thinking in the abstract is important. Before Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, nobody at NASA knew exactly what it took to strap a man to rockets, launch him out of our atmosphere and safely bring him back to Earth. But they figured it out. Then, in 1962, they figured out how to orbit Earth. Our most famous NASA achievement, landing on the moon in 1969, was yet another result of creative, mathematical thinking. All of this was accomplished by combining established math principles with completely new math theories generated by the challenge of reaching space — that is the essence of problem solving and abstract thinking.

Discovery is a beautiful thing. It require us to test limits and go beyond preconceived boundaries. If we never thought abstractly, we’d never create anything new.

8. Expect the unexpected. En route to reaching space, there were many failed tests and system malfunctions. The people at NASA had to be undeterred by their mistakes and focus their efforts on correcting them. NASA was under tremendous pressure to justify the government’s investment in space exploration, so financially they had to provide a return, but the American public’s morale was at stake, too.

The Soviet Union beat the United States to space by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit 23 days before Alan Shepard accomplished the same feat. This second place finish was just added motivation for NASA scientists to push harder to understand space.

Unforeseen twists and turns are a part of reality. Most of the time, you can’t control them, but you can control how you react to them.


9. The greatest achievements require teamwork. One man or woman couldn’t have completed all the steps necessary to reach space on their own. Mathematicians had to do the computations, an astronaut had to get in the rocketship, engineers had to build the parts, etc. One person cannot have deep knowledge in all of these areas; individuals have to specialize. And that’s what makes community-building and teamwork so special.

Alone, no one can solve our great societal problems, or big problems in general. But when people rally together on projects, they at least give themselves a shot at succeeding. People naturally want to be in power, but when you become obsessed with hoarding it, the entire group fails. Relinquish some control. Work in teams. You’ll accomplish more.

10. You might not experience instant gratification, but the hard work will always be worth it. The movie’s main character, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), is still alive. She’s now 98 years old. In November of last year, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award in the US — for her integral work at NASA, and paving the way for black women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). And now she’s being honored by the release of “Hidden Figures.”

More than a half century later, she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves, but I’m sure she never did the work for public gratification at all.

As in her case, you may not be instantly gratified. But if you are motivated to do good for the right reasons, your effort will always be worth it.

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