By Kristen Taketa St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cheers, whistles and applause echoed around the movie theater as the screen, preparing to roll into credits, revealed the faces of the three black, female heroes of “Hidden Figures.”
The film wasn’t the first time Promise Mitchell had seen black women on screen. But she said it was one of the first when she didn’t see them portrayed as being dependent on a man or involved with drugs.
“It was really good to see a representation on screen of black females,” said Mitchell, a sophomore at Central Visual Performing Arts High School. “It was really good to see an independent woman.”
Mitchell and about 350 other St. Louis sophomores took a field trip to the Galleria mall on Thursday to see “Hidden Figures,” the highly acclaimed film about three black women in the 1960s who helped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration send astronauts into space.
St. Louis-area schools have taken it as an opportunity to show their minority students an on-screen example of people like them who are hailed as heroes for their hard work in the face of racism.
The film is particularly relevant during February, which is Black History Month. Jennings and Normandy, which are black-majority school districts like St. Louis, have also taken students to see the film.
In an overwhelmingly white and male world of American film, “Hidden Figures” represents a rare case where a movie’s heroes are both female and black. Only 29 percent of speaking characters in film are women, according to a 2016 University of Southern California study. Only about 28 percent are minorities.
Sophomores from Soldan, Central VPA and Clyde C. Miller Career Academy high schools participated in Thursday’s field trip, which was sponsored by the National Math and Science Initiative. The national organization started a partnership with St. Louis Public Schools this year.
The event also featured post-movie panels of black and female engineers, scientists and other leaders who work at St. Louis-area companies such as Boeing, Pfizer and Monsanto. The panelists told the tales of how they found support for their early science and engineering interests, attended universities and found internships and jobs to pursue their passions.
Some told stories of the discrimination they endured even while holding leadership positions within their companies. The students fell silent as Toni Wilkins, an engineering lead at Monsanto who graduated from the Riverview Gardens School District, explained how two men referred to her as “girl” and refused to listen to her during her first job after college.
“They didn’t think I had anything valuable to say,” Wilkins said. “You have to have a voice. You have to be able to stand up for yourself, have a little backbone.”
Tonya Noble, an engineer at Boeing, described how she was the only black woman on her team and was told that “no man wants to listen to a woman when he comes to work.”
“You’re constantly proving yourself and showing what you can bring to the table,” she said.