Nearly 200 New York City high school students gathered at the Paley Center for Media on Dec. 10 to celebrate “Hidden Figures,” the highly anticipated feature from 20th Century Fox revealing the untold story of three African American women who played major roles in the Space Race of the 1960s. The students were treated to an exclusive advance screening of the film and heard from members of the cast and crew, as well as female leaders in STEM fields, during a panel discussion about why it’s critical that stories like these are told. “Hidden Figures” opens in select theaters across the U.S. on Christmas Day.
“I think this is the movie and the book of a generation,” said Dr. Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer who participated in the panel discussion following the screening. “It gives us a rallying cry, something to point to on a larger stage that says, ‘I know inside myself that I matter and that I can do this.'”
Isler was joined by Dale Davis Jones, a Distinguished Engineer at IBM; as well as Margot Lee Shetterly, who authored the book on which the film was based; Theodore Melfi, who directed “Hidden Figures,” Aldis Hodge, who played “Levi Jackson” in the film; and moderator Dr. Knatokie Ford, Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. Their discussion covered the wide range of subjects the film explores, including the importance of encouraging increased participation in STEM fields.
“I think what’s so amazing about this film is the way it portrays a love and a passion for math specifically,” Ford said. “Unfortunately, we have a culture that makes it seem like it’s OK for you to just opt out of becoming good at math because it’s ‘just not your thing…’ I hope because of this story, we’ll start to see change in this area.”
To further galvanize interest in the STEM fields, 21CF has partnered with PepsiCo to launch “The Search for Hidden Figures,” a contest encouraging young women in high school and college, as well as professionals, to answer essay questions and provide video submissions about the importance of STEM to themselves and the world. More than $200,000 in scholarships and other awards will be granted to the 12 winners, and more will receive membership to the New York Academy of Sciences and other prizes. In addition to the contest, the Search for Hidden Figures website also features a collection of STEM games, quizzes and challenges for students and fans of the film to test their skills.
Hodge, in his appraisal of the movie, went beyond its focus on STEM and discussed the value of portraying on screen the contributions that African Americans and women have made to American society: “Growing up, you’re so used to the idea of how the [traditional] American hero is defined, and you’re never truly introduced to what a real American hero is,” said Hodge. “When you have this story come out and you have these women in so many different genres of the American struggle – and they persevere – it gives you a different perspective of what this country is and what it’s built upon.”
Shetterly agreed, citing both the film and her book as means of shifting societal perceptions of African Americans and women: “So many people have read the book and seen the movie, and they are clearly expanding their imagination about who any of us might be and what possibilities we might have… I find that the movie coming out at this time gives me tremendous hope and optimism.”
The film resonated with the students in attendance as well. A student named Kayla from the Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens said she learned “that it doesn’t matter who you are or the color of your skin; you can still accomplish things that are unthinkable or seem impossible.”
Following the screening, each of the students at the screening received a free copy of Shetterly’s book, courtesy of HarperCollins.
Watch the full panel discussion on the Paley Center for Media’s Facebook page. “Hidden Figures” opens in select theaters on December 25 and wide on Jan. 6.