Hidden Figures: Teaching with Trailers

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 08 March 2017 > Webpicks

The film Hidden Figures reveals the untold true story of a team of African-American women mathematicians, or "human computers" who helped the success of the Apollo Moon landings program in the 1960s. These videos are a great follow-up after using our B1-level article and teaching activities with your pupils.

This short video introduces the film and is easier than the trailer, so it's good for pupils who haven't worked on the downloadable resource as an introduction, or for those who have to help them recap. It's usable either way from B1.

After some images of a NASA take off, director Theodore Melfi gives a succinct, one-sentence summary: "This is about three African-American women working in segregated NASA in 1961, 62 and 63."

Then Pharrell Williams explains that he's been obsessed by NASA since he was a boy. Those who have worked on the resource should be able to say that Williams invested in the film as a producer - freeze-frame as he appears, and ask them to explain, then play on for confirmation. For those who haven't read the resource, this is an opportunity to hypothesise what Williams' involvement could be.

In the scene where astronaut John Glenn asks our heroines what they do for NASA, those who have read the resource should be able to say who he is. The others will need to pick up clues that he's an astronaut ("calculate your trajectories, launch and landing...")

The last segment gives a nice overview of the "feelgood" factor of the film: that despite all the barriers, these women were appreciated for their talents.

The Trailer
The film is set in the American South, in Langley, Virginia, at the NASA base there. Many of the accents are Southern, which pupils may not be familiar with. All the more reason for them to hone their skills and use all the information available to them to build comprehension.

B1-level pupils who have worked on the resource will get a good deal out of the trailer. Without reading the resource, they can still gain global comprehension. At B2 level, pupils can both understand more of the subtleties and discuss more in-depth the issues of sexism and racism raised.

The trailer starts with a scene which is deliberately ambiguous, so even without understanding the dialogue, pupils have plenty of material to develop hypotheses: a group of respectably dressed black women are stopped by a white traffic policeman. Why do pupils think this situation has arisen? What will happen next? The first word they are likely to catch is "NASA", as one of the women hands over her ID. That should set off a new round of hypotheses!

When you play the next few seconds, lower-level pupils will be able to see that the policeman is leading the way for the women in his car (they may well catch the word "escort".) Higher-level pupils may be able to catch, and comment on, the humour in the dialogue when Octavia Spencer quips, "There are quite a few women working in the Space Program," and Taraji P. Henson's character: "Three negro women are chasing a white policeman down a highway in 1961. That is a God-ordained miracle." (You will probably need to stress that "negro" was still commonly used in the 1960s but is generally avoided today.)

The next section provides plenty opportunity to catch, and introduce space-related vocabulary: astronaut, space, launch, satellite, rocket.

Freeze the image at 0:45 and see if pupils can make any sense of the sign on the door which says "colored computers". (Pupils who have read the resource will know that the word "computer" was used to describe human mathematicians doing calculations before the electronic kind came along. And the teams of mathematicians are segregated.)

The scene beginning at 1'41 is very rich. It features Taraji P Henson's character, another mathematician played by Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), and their boss played by Kevin Costner. It gets across well the point that the women were fighting a double discrimination: as African Americans and as women. It finishes with Kevin Costner knocking down the "colored bathroom" sign.



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