He didn’t want to go. He lobbied hard for a second viewing of Fantastic Beasts or Rogue One. But, no, I was resolute, we would be seeing Hidden Figures. Together. Without complaint. I can be a stern mom when I need to be. In the end, as I had hoped for, he liked it quite a bit, was engaged with the story lines about math and space travel and pre-Civil Rights America, and had the opportunity to empathize with the realities of racism in a way he hadn’t before. It was a good decision.
Hidden Figures is the story of three African American women who worked for NASA during the early 1960s space race with Russia. Three women are featured — Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, Mary Jackson, a mathematician and aspiring engineer, and Dorothy Vaughn, a programmer. They are all badasses of the highest order.
We went to a 10:00 a.m. showing and the theater was packed, mostly with older adults. I didn’t see a single other child there, which is a shame, as I think the movie is a fantastic way to introduce children (young tweens and up would appreciate this film) to the difficult and challenging aspects of America’s history with racism and sexism and discrimination.
As a parent, I know I will have been successful if I raise empathic children. In our current divided country, something that has contributed to our division is our lack of empathy. We generalize, we demean, we devalue that which is different from us. Our children see that and suffer as a result.
In our home, we talk about things like racism and sexism on a regular basis. As we were driving to the theater, I explained to my eight year old son why I thought it was important for him to see this movie. I talked about racism and discrimination, but he was not having it. From his POV, he was being dragged into an ‘educational moment’ at the tail end of his winter break. Vacations were not for learning, he tried to convince me, they were for fun. Plus, he argued, he already knew all about racism.
Pffft. Ain’t that something? An eight year old white boy who knows all about racism. Precocious as he may be, my son still has a lot to learn about race and gender and class in America. Hell, as his mom, I still have a lot to learn, too. My hope was that Hidden Figures, through storytelling, would provide an exercise in empathy for my son, allowing him to see how discrimination played out in our not so distant past. It delivered.
An example that really seemed to hit home for my boy was with Taraji P. Henson’s character, Katherine Johnson. After being assigned as a “computer” for the team charged to formulate the math necessary for a safe launch and landing for the first astronauts, Katherine learned in her first moments on the job that there was no restroom for her to use, as they were still segregated in 1961 Virginia. Any time she needed to go, she really needed to go — across the sprawling campus to the single restroom dedicated to women of color. We saw Katherine run with armfuls of binders, in rain and shine, computing all the way, just to be able to pee. That is something an eight year old can relate to.
I’m simplifying it, of course, but I don’t want to underestimate the power of seeing a young child realize for the first time some of the mechanics of racism and discrimination. In 1961, while he was almost 50 years away from being born himself, all of my son’s grandparents and even a beloved aunt were around. The concepts of racism and sexism and discrimination suddenly didn’t seem so far away for him anymore.
After the movie, we talked easily and freely about the experiences of the three main characters. We talked about justice and right and wrong and the connection between history and current events. We talked about black and white and men and women and hard work and hope. Never underestimate what children are capable of.
Something my husband and I work for is to raise white boys who will grow into white men capable of both understanding their privilege and helping change a culture and system that benefits people on the basis of their gender and color and class. Hidden Figures is a must see for families with (not too) young children. The storytelling pulls you in, educates and entertains, all while providing opportunities to learn and empathize.
Take your kids now. They need it.