The man at the box office seemed unsure when I told him I was the guest of a VIP.
“Hmm. What’s your name?” He checked his list, found my name, and gave me a look that conveyed “Should I know you?”
I played along and gave him my best movie star smile. “I have a friend on her way. Please be sure she is given a seat if I’m inside when she arrives.”
The December day was gorgeous — sunny and warm as usual in this part of the country. As I waited in front of the theater, I noticed a woman staring at me. After an awkward few minutes of smiling at each other, she approached me. I did not recognize her, and my mind started doing that “going through the faces file” thing. Nope. She was not there.
“Hello,” I said. That was as good an icebreaker as I could come up with at the moment. Who is this woman, and why is she looking at me like that? Is it the boots? I shouldn’t have worn the boots. Too casual for a VIP event?
“Hello!” Big smile. “Do you need a ticket? If you’re trying to get in, I can give you a ticket.” Another big smile. It looked almost motherly.
“Uh, no. I’m good.” I did consider telling her that I was Kevin and Christine Costner’s guest, but I decided to keep that little nugget to myself.
We chatted about the movie and our good fortune to attend a private screening before its release. I chose to turn my thoughts away from the initial impression she gave me and tried to enjoy our conversation. “Where is Meredith?!?” did keep popping up in my thoughts, despite my efforts to keep it down.
“Do you know Oprah?” Out of the blue.
I took a deep mental breath. “Personally? No.”
“She lives here, you know.”
My deep breathing may or may not have been audible that time.
We continued with more chit-chat about Oprah, the weather, and other famous people who live in our city.
“I know someone who lived in the South.” Her eyes narrowed and she waited for me to let this sink in.
Uh-oh. Was this woman going to reveal a family secret to me? Cruel slave owners? A lynching? Cousins with mysteriously dark skin?
She continued. “I asked her ‘Do you have maids?’ She said yes! I asked her ‘Did they go inside the house through another door?’ She said yes! I could not believe it!” Her eyes were so wide and her voice was so loud that I completely believed that she could not believe it.
“The movie is about to begin. Please take your seats.” Saved by the announcement, I bid the woman farewell. My friend had not yet arrived, but I was glad for the opportunity to move into a dark theater where I supposed I would not stand out as much as I did outside.
The back row was perfect — my friend could find me easily when she arrived. Her text explained that she had ridden her bicycle across town to the wrong theater — my mistake! — and she was on her way.
I wondered about the life of that woman. Why did she feel the need to share with me the things that she did? I felt sorry for her. She was laying a few of her burdens on me in a way that revealed more about herself than she probably wanted to expose.
Scanning the audience, and comfortable in my seat, I noticed that I was the only black woman in the theater.
Three years ago this month, the story of three women was released as a movie. Hidden Figures introduced the world to Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughn — black women who worked as mathematicians for NASA during the Space Race, and used their fantastic minds to put a man into space and on the moon. The movie goes even further to show how these women were pioneers in the areas of racial equality and equal opportunity for black women.
I heard nothing about them while I was growing up during the decades in which these women performed their now-famous work. In school, I loved studying math and science. Yet the only black women that I recall receiving glory from the adults in my community were singers and social activists.
I chose singing.
Finally. I caught sight of my friend entering the theater. She hopped over the back railing to join me. After an introduction from the film festival’s moderator, and a teaser for Kevin Costner’s Q&A after the showing, the movie began.
There was much for me to love about Hidden Figures: Untold history; proof that a PG rating can catch and hold an audience; marriage honored throughout; the excellent acting and captivating storytelling; and, best of all, an ending that left the audience with cheering and uplifted hearts.
The audience rewarded it with a standing ovation, and I was sure that Hidden Figures would be nominated for an Academy Award. “Best Picture” was my hope. It was that good, that entertaining, that educational, that moving.
But something happened while I was watching the movie that is etched in my memory and my heart.
We were at the pivotal scene where Katherine Johnson finally lets her emotions take over to explain why she is away from her desk for long periods. She is at NASA in a room full of white men who have belittled and insulted her day after day.
The movie theater was silent as, through this scene, we all experienced — in one moment, at the same time — the hideous effects of racism.
Then, I heard it. I felt it. I looked to my left.
A older woman sitting next to me was shaking from her silent cry. I saw tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. She looked straight ahead, not once at me.
At that instant, I put aside the fact that I was the black person. I was the one who should be comforted, right?
Instead, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. We each laid our head against the other’s.
“It’s not like this anymore,” I whispered. “It’s better now.” She did not reply, but that did not bother me.
It is hard to explain my emotions as I saw this woman’s grief. Suffice it to say that I felt a combination of pity, sadness, and love. For a stranger? Yes. For a white stranger? Yes. At a movie on the topic of racism? Yes. My God calls upon me to live this way.
I will never know what thoughts brought such sadness to that woman. She was up from her seat immediately after the credits.
Perhaps it was solely the power of the scene doing what it was designed to do.
Perhaps she remembered a past action which came back with a flood of guilt and regret.
Perhaps she had experienced an injustice herself — against her skin color, in her marriage, within a job position — and this scene was a reminder of a genuine hurt in her life.
Whatever it was, that woman’s silent cry was real, and it moved me. I will always connect her with this movie.
Later, as I remembered the woman I had met earlier in front of the theater, I realized she was crying silently as well, though in a hidden way of her own.
We all have a sad story to share. We all have hearts that can listen and empathize. If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures, please find a copy and watch it. Be moved by the story, and then make it your goal to be moved to help the hidden figures in your own life.
Here is the scene that evoked the tears, along with the following scene which shows Al Harrison (Costner’s character) and his reaction to Katherine’s revelation: