Why “Hidden Figures” matters

Katherine Johnson.jpeg
Katherine Johnson- Physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in NASA’s journey into space and their landing on the moon

I’ve long since become accustomed to seeing leading black women in movies as slaves, love interests and/or maids. Other times, I’ve become accustomed to seeing them as caricatures; either they are women who do too much or too little, women who act but don’t inspire because their characters are one dimensional and overdone.

For years, we would ask for not only minority representation but strong minority representation that doesn’t reduce us to either eye-candy, sassy black woman and/or a mammy characters. We were told that what we wanted just was not possible. Our underrepresentation in films were not a result of some active and implicit bias but simple Mathematics. We were told that movies with lead black women would just not do well at the box office. Only movies focused predominantly on white heroism, pains and struggles would. So, they would give us things like Madea, The Help and so on, not yet knowing that their argument would soon be riddled with holes as “Hidden Figures” (based on the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly), has even beaten Rogue 1 (as it well should because Star Wars is crap) at the box office while having far fewer theatres available to it. Now that their argument is demolished, I hope that this movie will represent a tide of changes to come within the film industry.


Mary Jackson- Mathematician and aerospace engineer at NASA. She was the first black black engineer at NASA

I went into the movie the day it opened at Giftland, excited but slightly skeptical. Would this movie fall prey to the common trope of the tiara syndrome and that of the white savior? Would this be NASA’s version of ‘The Help’?

While on surface level there might have appeared to be elements of both, there weren’t, not really.

Harrison, the leader of the mission in a nice scene breaks down segregated washroom signs. I was a bit dubious about this part until I realised that he did not do it because he feels particularly sympathetic to Katherine, he did it because it was in his and NASA’s best interest to do so. They could not have their lead mathematician running off everyday for close to an hour because she did not have access to bathrooms close by. Meanwhile, the women are not silent persons waiting to be recognised, but actively pursue and adapt themselves to achieve what they want and that is highly refreshing.

People often shirk at the idea about positive representation in the media. Entertainment is entertainment and in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t matter. While that may be true to an extent, seeing not only one but three trailblazing women who look like you accomplishing so much in a much more oppressive system, does wonders on the minds of little black girls everywhere and lets them know that they too can do great things.


Dorothy Vaughn- Mathematician who was the first black woman to supervise staff at NASA

Within five minutes, I was in tears. This silly tear spilling over the women, their triumphs and their struggles continued sporadically throughout the film. I was thankful that it being day, not many persons were in the theatre, but I did gain a strange look from the ticket collector on my way out because of how red my eyes were. If such a movie can matter to me, someone who has by and large been very privileged and grew up hearing that I could be whatever I wanted and throwing away my family’s lofty ambitions and aiming to become a writer, then imagine what it means to those less privileged and who are told that their stories and lives do not matter. Just imagine.

I liked that the movie was not this idealogical pipe dream which saw the white people all realising that, “Oh, they’re just people like us and as such we should treat them equally.” No, it is a movie rooted in reality and as such, the evolution of the central white characters are subtler and one gets a sense once again that they are not being accepting because they particularly like these women, but because it is in their best interest to have the best minds working for them. The movie offers a very sobering question about equality, biases and the implications these have for our advancement as a people. While we see the barriers the women face with regards to advancement due to their race and gender, we begin to wonder how many persons never got a chance to make their genius known due to the prevailing biases surrounding them.


The Orlando shooting


With every mass shooting, bombings or acts of hate and terror in countries such as the U.S and U.K, the world watches in grief as the often-grisly murders are explained to them. Often, these killings overshadow similar ones in continents such as Africa and Asia as mainstream media decides who gets our sympathies and who does not.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, the attitudes and opinions we hold on certain tragic matters are largely influenced by the media and the stories they harp upon.

This is one reason why we hardly heard a peep about the 49 persons who died in Syria and the 35 others who were injured in shooting and shelling and hardly anything about the rise of Boko Haram and their countless victims.

Before I go on, I should say that I am in no way trying to undermine the brutality of the act of hate mixed with self loathing which resulted in the death of 49 persons and injuries of over 50.

The speculated reasons behind the assault are many, with the most popular one of late being that the shooter himself was gay and was struggling with an identity he was conditioned to hate from childhood.

To an extent, it can even be considered an act of terror, which was very particular in its nature, as was the case with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

It should be noted that the shooters ghastly act not only wounded the gay community but also served to add fire to the proverbial flames of anti- Muslim sentiments in a time when followers of Islam have been singled out for hateful political rhetoric.

Whatever the reason behind the work of that deranged mind however, I know that the attack has caused LBGT persons in the U.S and around the rest of the world to feel less safe than they had just a few days ago.

Even here in Guyana the tension and unease amongst the gay community can be seen and felt as many persons openly share their sentiments which are largely urged on by religious views, that the man’s act was justified.

For every one of these bible thumpers however, there are maybe five who are sympathetic to the shooting. The sympathy and expressions of condemnation have been so overwhelming that it has caused me to wonder whether us Guyanese would have the same sympathetic response had such a shooting against LBGT members occurred here.

While we have never had such a mass shooting, over the years there has been a continuous rise in violent attacks often resulting in death against homosexual men, particularly those who are transgender.

Despite the deaths of these men, public response to these murders were miniscule at best with only a selective few seeing the clear trend of hate driven crimes that was forming. The years, 2013 through to 15 saw these targeted murders rising but yet, the larger public remained oblivious and even the police force did not seem to see the significance in the crimes nor the need to actively pursue and solve them.

In 2014, there was even a march against the slothful way in which the police were attempting to probe into the murders of several homosexual men with several citing the reasons for sloth as being trans-phobia and homophobia deeply ingrained within the psyche of the police officers.

While it is no laughing matter, I cannot help but find it amusing when I heard some of our nations leaders protest against the shooting and comment upon the need for tolerance and acceptance when nothing substantial is being done to protect those belonging to the LBGT group in their own country and removing outdated and dangerous legislation which makes criminals out of otherwise law abiding citizens.

If nothing else, this tragedy has offered us at home and abroad the opportunity to confront the often-unchallenged anti-gay rhetoric and actions touted and carried by friends, family and acquaintances. When these views remain unchallenged all they serve to do is contribute to the acceptance of hatred and violence against those in who their distaste lies with. Too often, these messages of hate and discrimination come from our churches pulpits and podiums when there is an urgent need for messages of love and acceptance. Too often, these messages of hate are passed down to the minds of our children. Regardless of what religion one belongs to, efforts should be made to ensure harmful ideologies, which discriminate against each other are not adapted.

On almost being a statistic



I like to consider myself someone who is willing to talk about anything. Whether I agree with it or not, I believe conversations should be had. One thing I have always shied away from however, is suicide. I have never had someone close to me commit the act so I never thought it was my place to air any view on the subject.

I would listen and remain silent to the insensitivity, sadness and often, even anger in cases of suicide, because who am I to comment on something that even I do not understand.

Not often, but every once in a while someone comes to me for solutions to problems they might have. I sometimes joke and tell them, “hey, that psychology thing is just a minor,” but for some reason, they trust a 19 year old with a slight energy drink addiction to make decisions for them.

Of course, I feel bad because who am I to not make decisions when decisions are needed, who am I to tell them that instead of solutions, what I have are stories, stories that will hopefully cause one not to only think, but to feel.

I grew up in Berbice, the county that is most famous for its suicides and so, I grew up believing that suicide was a “Indian thing” because the reality of the situation was that these are the persons who most often end their lives. Of course, being a child who sought answers for everything I quickly learnt that suicide is not decided by ethnicity, creed or affluence-even if these things may have a hand to play in the larger scheme of things, the real problem is depression.

Three years ago, I was living alone and being someone who enjoys solitude, I did not notice the first warning signs of depression- but then again, who really notices the first signs?

At the time, I was still in high school as I had been kept back two grades due to migratory patterns and a pregnancy. After one term, I dropped out of school and while at the time I gave the excuse of being too smart for the teachers, which was not far from the truth, mostly it was because socializing took too much energy out of me, energy I believed I needed to save.

I was having what I would like to call several mini-existential crises and many days I would sleep until my body simply refused to rest anymore because less time awake meant less time to think and less time to think silenced at least a few of the fleeting thoughts of suicide.

While this cosmic loneliness and feelings of inadequacy had cloaked me and threatened to remain unshaken, no one noticed, because I never let anyone see behind that stoic veil. It was not until I stopped hiding behind that mask of joviality and contentment did it dawn on me that that is what most people whose suicides take us by surprise do- they hide.

Things went further downhill for a while and all that was sought were distractions but even these distractions became too taxing and thoughts on ways of how I can or should go out became increasingly frequent. While I’ve never tried, I have killed myself hundreds of times in my mind and of course, that is how it always begins.

In one state of lucid unselfishness, I knew that could not be the end of my story-not when I still had so many others to write, so what I did was I sought help. I sought help because I did not want to be one of the dozens of young victims of suicide that are never heard of in Guyana because the act in itself is so very common, I did not want to be a statistic.

Those thoughts did not go away overnight but they did become significantly infrequent and while my experience with depression is not something I have broadcasted, it is definitely not something I am ashamed of.

What is shameful is that despite Guyana having one of the highest suicide rates in the world, to my knowledge there is only one suicide hotline which was put in place by the Guyana Police Force in August of this year. To my knowledge there is no suicide prevention centre. I may be wrong and there may be more but how many of these are government funded and how many of these are actually known?

But these things are needed, especially in a country such as ours where stigma is still attached to mental health and where young people now coming into their own feel as if there is no one with whom they can speak. These things are needed because they need to understand that despite their current situation, they can always rebound, even from the deepest darkest wells of self-loathing, one can always rebound.

As a writer, I have been conditioned to hate cliches, so while I flinch a bit to write this, people I think, especially teenagers need to realize that it is okay to not be okay. While one may think everything is bad, often, those bad patches remain just a sentence in a collection of J. R. R. Tolkien books and lets be honest here, those things are really long.