Local groups flock to 'Hidden Figures' for inspiration, history untold

Viewers aren't just seeing "Hidden Figures" with a partner or friend. They're headed to theaters in groups.

The storyline of "Hidden Figures," the film highlighting the historical contributions of three African-American female NASA mathematicians whose work in the 1960s helped launch astronaut John Glenn into space, has been greeted with fanfare since its Jan. 6 wide release.

The movie, which stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, has been No. 1 at the box office two weeks running, overtaking "Star Wars: Rogue One" and then maintaining the top spot over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Ticket sales have exceeded $60 million as of Friday morning.

And audience members aren't just viewing with a partner or friend. They're headed to theaters in large groups.

More than a dozen campaigns have cropped up on crowdfunding website GoFundMe, with teachers and community members fundraising to send students and youth — young women in particular — by the busload to theaters. National organizations and local groups have also bonded together, hosting panels and screenings in celebration of a history that before now was widely untold.

Locally, Peter Modlin, a second-grade language teacher at Govans Elementary School, launched a GoFundMe campaign Jan.15to raise $1,000 to bring at least 40 girls, from second through fifth grades, to see the film.

"They deserve to see what opportunity looks like. They deserve to see what can happen with hard work and discipline. They deserve a chance," Modlin, 55, exhorts on the campaign page.

Modlin had received $2,855 in donations as of Friday afternoon. Now, he plans to take around 75 girls for an early, exclusive showing Thursday at the Senator Theatre and will use the additional funds to plan an end-of-the-year field trip to NASA (in hopes of his pupils meeting African-American astronauts, mathematicians and scientists), an idea inspired by the NASA drama.

"The movie is geared towards women, positive women," Modlin told The Sun, emphasizing that a film like "Hidden Figures" can show his "school daughters" the breadth of what they can achieve.

"They don't have to be a singer or even a basketball player. … I want them to know they can succeed in the sciences and math, be an astronaut," Modlin said.

While most of the pupils are excited, Modlin said he's not positive whether they're all aware of the film's message or the discrimination the characters experienced. Some are just happy to take a trip during a school day.

But "hopefully, the light bulb will go off, and they will think "I can do this,'" he said, emphasizing that he hopes it will make the pupils determined, that seeing what "African-American women had to go through back then, then, they don't have any excuses."

There is one stipulation, Modlin said. Students will be required to write about their thoughts after they see the movie.

"I don't care what they tell me, but I want them to be honest with how they feel."

Baltimore city and county chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. held a celebration in honor of their national black organization and Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, who were also members.

Around 1,000 sorority sisters and community members filled three theaters at Hoyts Cinemas West Nursery Cinema in Linthicum Heights for a special screening after hosting a food drive and an all-women panel with professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields on Jan. 15, which is also the anniversary of the day the sorority was founded in 1908.

The Baltimore chapter's spokeswoman, Tonya Cooper-Johnson, 57, said the movie was moving, not only because the main characters were also AKA's, but because the women were an integral part of history that wasn't commonly read in history books.

"Myself — I was born in 1960 — and growing up, you get history, but I've never heard of these individuals. It's just interesting, not only hearing this story, but also learning about other hidden figures whose stories are not told," Cooper-Johnson said.

"[The movie] was done in an educational framework, but in a very lighthearted way as well. It brought to light the fact that these women were not only dealing with the issue of racism, they were also dealing with sexism."

Microbiologist Khandra Sears, 35, of Union Square saw the movie Jan. 14 with fellow members of educational organization Frederick Douglass Humanist Society of Baltimore and the Baltimore Ethical Society. Eleven people from various walks of life attended, including three female scientists, she said.

"I personally found it interesting, because I'm a scientist. Even today, you don't see too many black women in science," said Sears, who is originally from the Bahamas and identifies as black.

Going with a group only made the discussions that followed more dynamic, she said.

"I think especially if the group is diverse, you realize different things jump out to different people," Sears said, adding that she viewed the racism the characters faced as "so casual."

Some questioned how realistic the depiction of racism and sexism was, but Sears said the story resonated with the female scientists, who similarly work in a male-dominated field.

"I mean, it's certainly much easier to [pursue a career in science] today, but there's still little hurdles," she said. "Somebody recognizing your potential and encouraging you to seek more is really important, and we all sort of need that encouragement and support. It makes it easier to get through the system."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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