Hidden Figures Is Incredible, You Should Go See It

Spoilers ahead.

Hidden Figures is a film about three women “computers” — people who worked doing math calculations for NASA in the time leading up to manned orbital flights. Katherine Goble (later Johnson) is an actual math genius, who, due to her hard work and unmatched talent, pushed her way up to the Space Task Group, where her knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect. Mary Jackson, with the encouragement of her supervisors, goes to court to secure her right to continue her education at an all-white high school, so that she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. And Dorothy Vaughan, frustrated by doing the work of a supervisor with neither the title nor pay that comes with it, sees an opportunity in the IBM computer; she teaches herself and those she leads to program the monstrous machine and make themselves indispensable.

It is an excellent movie. It is a movie about scientific progress, and the risks and rewards that come with it. It is also a movie about civil rights. It is a movie that demonstrates the important lesson that progress depends on progress.

There are no bad guys in this movie. I haven’t seen every movie ever, but I’ve become inured to the trope: when a movie is about racism, there is usually a big ol’ racist jerk, like an inverse white savior; for example, Hilly Holbrook in The Help. It’s a character who conveniently embodies prejudice and discrimination, and in defeating them, protagonists symbolically defeat racism. In Hidden Figures, racism is not so much a part of characterization as it is a part of the setting. White people are dismissive or ignorant, but never overtly, intentionally cruel. Racism is something that the white people in the story are simply not sensitive to until confronted with it. Kevin Costner’s character is confronted with it when he realizes that Katherine, who he relies on, has to take forty minute bathroom breaks because the nearest “colored” women’s restroom is a half a mile away. Like a good manager, realizing that the rule helps no one and hurts his team, he abolishes the rule. I think perhaps the most powerful interaction of this vein occurs in a women’s restroom between Octavia Spencer’s and Kirsten Dunst’s characters; the scene is so thoughtful and polite and well-acted that I audibly gasped.

I liked how the cinematography used color to draw attention to our leads, especially Taraji P. Henson’s character. In a room filled with white men in white shirts and black ties, where the only other woman is wearing neutral tones, Katherine Goble is wearing turquoise as brilliant as her mind. Her mug is the one brown one among alabaster ceramic. She is special, and it’s not hard to see if you’re willing to look; her rise feels hard-won yet also inevitable.

These were important stories to tell, and I’m glad to be an audience for them. I highly recommend this film.

Wine and Wine Not: Teachers and the Halo Effect

11970894281309688612johnny_automatic_wine_and_goblets.svg.hiAt our staff meeting before our students return, our principal set us to a task of discussing ways in which we would challenge ourselves and change our behaviors to better reflect our shared belief that every student can learn. It was just a short part of a bigger meeting, and like many chats between colleagues who know and like each other, someone opened with a joke.

“I promise to be there with a glass of wine when you need one!” she said.

“And remember that, regardless of whether the glass is half full or half empty, there’s still wine in it!” someone added.

Another person remarked that someone needs to teach her how to properly enjoy wine.

“The key is actually not to worry too much about it,” I said. “Even the professionals get thrown by labels. I mean, a cheap wine from Wal-Mart won a major award this past year, so the pressure’s way off plebes like us.”

In a wine competition, judges do a “blind” tasting, meaning that they have no idea what specific wine they are tasting. They may know details like the vintage or the varietal of wine but not much else. It seems that this is necessary to really assess the wine, as experts have been tricked into believing wrong things about wine — basic things such as the colorIn a 2001 experiment, a scientist invited fifty-seven wine experts to sample glasses of wine, half of which appeared to be red wine, the other half white. In fact, every glass was the same white wine, but some had been tinted with food coloring to look red. For the most part, it seemed as though no one could detect the truth. On top of that, the experts were allowed to see labels — which were intentionally misleading and inaccurate. Glasses served out of a fancy-labelled bottle were praised, while glasses served out of the table wine bottle were denigrated. Again, this was the same wine, and the only difference was the packaging. But their expectations of the wine turned out to have more weight in their judgment than what was actually served up in the glass.

And what’s the teacher’s take-away? One of the first grade teachers told me weeks ago, “I heard from the kindergarten teacher that one of my students was ‘bad,’ but I didn’t want to know which one, because I don’t want to assume they’re going to be ‘bad’ for me this year.” Just like the wine experts, we’d like to think we’re capable of objectively judging the specific qualities of someone or something. But, we tend to assess the individual attributes of others based on their appearances, and our expectations of them. This first grade teaching colleague of mine doesn’t want to hear which kid is “bad” because she doesn’t want to allow herself to subconsciously expect him to be bad, especially not when he’s going to a new school with a new teacher and has a clean slate ahead of him.

We teachers are especially prone to the halo effect, which is when our overall impression of somebody influences all your thoughts and feelings about that person’s character. Author David McRaney discusses a study done on teachers in his book You Are Now Less Dumb. Teachers all watched the same video of a fourth grade student performing activities. The teachers did not know it, but the child on the video was specifically chosen because he was absolutely average, with test scores well within normal ranges for his age. The teachers were divided into four groups. The first group was told they would be evaluating emotionally disturbed children. The second was told they would be evaluating learning disabled children. The third group was told they would be evaluating mentally retarded children. The fourth group served as a control group, and they were told nothing specific about the children they would evaluate beforehand. (This experiment was conducted in 1976, so the language they used at the time may not reflect the language we would choose today.)

The control group, who had no expectations in particular of the child, accurately judged him to be typical. But the other groups who attached a label to him before seeing him judged him much more harshly. They saw a child struggling with challenges that did not actually exist. All groups saw the same video of the same child doing the same things. But those who thought he was emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, or mentally retarded did not revise their assessment when he behaved normally. Rather, they found evidence in his behavior to support their expectations, not subvert them. “The halo effect can easily set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy in which attitude changes behavior, which then loops back around over and over for the persons both giving and receiving a label,” writes McRaney.

Our first day of school is next week. I prepare in so many ways — decorating my classroom, picking my outfit, packing my lunch. But I also try to adopt the attitude of my colleague. I shall try not to judge each student as a whole based on their appearance or reputation alone. My students shouldn’t be burdened with my first impression of them for the rest of the school year.