Recently, Good Black News was invited to cover the launch of “One Strange Rock,” a ten-part space/science series on the National Geographic Channel that premieres Monday, 3/26, and is hosted and narrated by Will Smith. It is director Darren Aronofsky‘s (“Black Swan,” “mother!,” “Requiem For a Dream”) first foray into television, and the series is produced by Jane Root through her production company Nutopia. It is a cinematic look at Earth from a variety of perspectives – from space, from the sea, from the desert – and across all continents.
From the episodes I’ve seen, “One Strange Rock” is a gorgeous, meditative, eye-opening look at our planet, and Smith is a welcome, friendly guide along the journey to get to know Earth and all its ecosystems in ways we haven’t seen or previously considered. But what honestly got me excited about “One Strange Rock” was the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female to travel into space (and one of my personal she-ros) to speak with her about her participation in “One Strange Rock,” as well as her other current projects (100 Year Starship and Look Up).
As I start to record the interview (this is moments after I fangirl and tell Dr. Jemison I dressed up as her one Halloween, entered a costume contest and won a 25-dollar gift card to Virgin Records), I state into my Voice Memo app the date, time, and that I’m about to interview Dr. Mae Jemison, she charmingly interrupts.
Mae Jemison: How about if we do it in Star Date Time? 2018.01.13, right?
Good Black News: Way better! That’s a Trekkie for you! I appreciate that, thank you, Dr. Jemison. Well, first I want to ask you about your involvement in “One Strange Rock.” Why, of all the different entities out there covering space, space travel, space exploration, did you want to lend your voice to this project?
MJ: So “One Strange Rock” is the story of the extraordinary journey of Earth. It’s about our home planet and how we went from this collection of rock and gases to something that supports life and an incredible diversity of life, and I wanted to be a part of that. When people think about space, so frequently they think about it just as the stars and the pictures and images and the rockets. But actually, space allows us to see our world that we live on. Space allows us to understand that when we look up at the stars, we’re actually made of the stuff of stars. Right? Inside of us is the heart of an old star. Doesn’t that make you feel like you belong to this universe and that you’re supposed to be here?
Absolutely. So is your hope with this particular project that more people will get that understanding that there isn’t a separation?
MJ: “One Strange Rock” does this incredible thing – it takes us from the smallest microbe, or to how oxygen is generated in small bubbles, all the way to the vistas of continents or being able to see our atmosphere, and connects it together. And so for me, one of the things we need to understand at some point in time – we’ve got to figure this out – is that we’re Earthlings and that we’re connected to this planet. So when I went into space, one of the things that happened to me is that I had an affirmation of something that I always believed. You know when people say, “Save the Earth”? They’re mistaken – the Earth will be here. The difference is, can we act in such a way that it continues to support our life form? You see, what “One Strange Rock” shows is how integrated life is on this planet and we as humans are part of that life. If we go to another world – just go to the space station – we have to carry some of the Earth with us. We have to carry that environment with us because this is where we evolved, this is where we developed. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leave – obviously I want to leave -I want to go and explore other places. But it’s the recognition that there are a… unique series of coincidences, events and everything that led us to this day, to humans, to me sitting talking to you. And they started billions of years ago.
So with all of that, you talk in the first episode about the “Overview Effect” – about seeing the planet and essentially what you just communicated to me. How do you get people who don’t have the opportunity to go into space to understand that boundaries and countries and all of these things that we do as human beings to identify in all these different ways is a way of looking at Earth that isn’t going to help foster the survival of our species?
MJ: So I want to make one thing clear – I know a lot of astronauts talk about the “Overview Effect” – that everything belongs right here on this planet – for me when I went into space… I knew damn well that water crosses from one country to another, that our sky is over different countries and weather affects everyone. What “One Strange Rock” does is help people to understand and feel that. So I can maybe mumble words and give you statistics and stuff, but it’s not the same thing as having that emotional connection. What I’m so proud about with “One Strange Rock” is that it takes images from lots of different countries, from African countries, from South American countries – it goes down underneath the Earth and goes up to the top. And all those things help us to see this planet and the imagery from people, to animals, to… desolate locations. And so, it’s not so much again about mumbling the words, or even saying the words very clearly, it’s about allowing people to see and be there with you. And not just from space, because we get down to the detail. We see kids playing, we see folks who’ve been collecting salt for generations from one location. All of those things are important for us to understand our connectedness to this world. And it’s not about preaching and it’s not about how fast the Space Station is orbiting the Earth or any of that kind of stuff – it’s that vantage point.Continue reading “Pioneering Astronaut Mae Jemison Offers Insight and Forward Thinking to New National Geographic Channel Series “One Strange Rock””→
An elementary school in Utah has traded one Jackson for another in a change that many say was a long time coming.
Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City will no longer be named for Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, whose slave ownership and treatment of Native Americans are often cited in the debate over memorializing historical figures associated with racism.
Instead, the school will honor Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer at nasa whose story, and the stories of others like her at the space agency, was chronicled in Hidden Figures, a 2016 film based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.
A unanimous vote by the the Salt Lake City school board this week was met with a standing ovation from the crowd in the room, reportsThe Salt Lake Tribune’s Erin Alberty. School employees and parents have discussed changing the elementary’s school name “for years,” Alberty reported, and last year started polling and meeting with parents, alumni, and others. More than 70 percent supported the change. Of the school’s 440 students, 85 percent are students of color, according to the Salt Lake City School District.
Mary Jackson, a native of Hampton, Virginia, worked as a math teacher, a receptionist, and an Army secretary before she arrived at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1951 as a member of the West Area Computing unit, a segregated division where African American women spent hours doing calculations with pencil and paper, including for the trajectories of the country’s earliest space missions.
Two years in, a NASA engineer picked Jackson to help him work on a wind tunnel that tested flight hardware by blasting it with winds nearly twice the speed of sound. The engineer suggested Jackson train to become an engineer. To do that, Jackson had to take night courses in math and physics from the University of Virginia, which were held at the segregated Hampton High School. Jackson successfully petitioned the city to let her take the classes. She got her promotion to engineer in 1958. After 34 years at the space agency, Jackson retired in 1985. She died in 2005, at the age of 83.
Taylor Richardson, a 14-year-old aspiring astronaut from Jacksonville, Fla., exceeded her goal of raising money to send 1,000 girls to see the upcoming film A Wrinkle In Time. As of press time, her GoFundMe page for the goal has raised $17,455 of her $15,000 goal.
“This campaign is so very important to me because it will give me the opportunity to change not only girls perception of STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] and space exploration but boys as well,” explains Richardson in her original post about her goal.
A Wrinkle In Time stars Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon, and is directed byAva DuVernay. The story tells the tale of a young girl, her friend and her brother, who are transported through time and space to a new world to rescue the girl’s father, a scientist who is being held prisoner on another planet.
Richardson was recently named a member of Teen Vogue’s Class of 2017 21 under 21 for girls who are changing the world. The self-proclaimed “STEMinist” recently attended the publication’s first ever Teen Vogue Summit in Los Angeles, and also spoke on the panel of TEDxFSCJ [Florida State College at Jacksonville] Salon: Rediscovering Space. Last year, Richardson raised money to have 1,000 girls see the science film, Hidden Figures.
“This campaign [“Send 1,000 Girls To Wrinkle In Time”] means a lot to me because it shows a female protagonist in a science fiction film,” she wrote in her most recent update. “Girls will know that the possibility of going into space, exploring other planets, being rocket scientists, engineers, mathematicians and astronauts for them is not that it is limited but limitless!”
Gladys West was putting together a short bio about herself for a sorority function that recognized senior members of the group.
She noted her 42-year career at the Navy base at Dahlgren and devoted one short-and-sweet line to the fact she was part of the team that developed the Global Positioning System in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority member Gwen James was blown away by the statement. The two had known each other for more than 15 years, and James had no idea that the soft-spoken and sharp-minded West played such a “pivotal role” in a technology that’s become a household word.
“GPS has changed the lives of everyone forever,” James said. “There is not a segment of this global society — military, auto industry, cell phone industry, social media, parents, NASA, etc. — that does not utilize the Global Positioning System.”
The revelation that her 87-year-old sorority sister was one of the “Hidden Figures” behind GPS motivated James to share it with the world. “I think her story is amazing,” James added.
West, who lives in King George County, VA, admits she had no idea at the time — when she was recording satellite locations and doing accompanying calculations — that her work would affect so many. “When you’re working every day, you’re not thinking, ‘What impact is this going to have on the world?’ You’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get this right.’ ”
And get it right she did, according to those who worked with her or heard about her.
In a 2017 message about Black History Month, Capt. Godfrey Weekes, then-commanding officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, described the “integral role” played by West.
“She rose through the ranks, worked on the satellite geodesy (science that measures the size and shape of Earth) and contributed to the accuracy of GPS and the measurement of satellite data,” he wrote. “As Gladys West started her career as a mathematician at Dahlgren in 1956, she likely had no idea that her work would impact the world for decades to come.”
As a girl growing up in Dinwiddie County south of Richmond, all Gladys Mae Brown knew was that she didn’t want to work in the fields, picking tobacco, corn and cotton, or in a nearby factory, beating tobacco leaves into pieces small enough for cigarettes and pipes, as her parents did. “I realized I had to get an education to get out,” she said.
When she learned that the valedictorian and salutatorian from her high school would earn a scholarship to Virginia State College (now University), she studied hard and graduated at the top of her class. She got her free ticket to college, majored in math and taught two years in Sussex County before she went back to school for her master’s degree.
She sought jobs where she could apply her skills and eventually got a call from the Dahlgren base, then known as the Naval Proving Ground and now called Naval Support Facility Dahlgren. “That’s when life really started,” she said.
Ever since I was four years old, I remember feeling powerless. I didn’t know it by name then, but looking back, powerlessness is what drove me every night, after I slid under my Raggedy Ann sheets and comforter, to wish and pray that when I woke up, I’d wake up a boy. Not because I felt like a boy inside, but because boys got to have what I couldn’t. Hair that didn’t have to be detangled or combed or braided. Action figures instead of dolls. Race cars with race tracks and pants to play in—always pants. In my four-year-old mind, boys had everything. Freedom. Choices. Power. Pants. But every morning like clockwork, the sun rose, I looked down, and I was denied yet again by The Man Upstairs. I was still Team Pink. I was still a girl.
I wore my disappointment more stoically than my dresses, because somehow I knew this was not a conversation to be had with either parent, or even my big sister (who was obsessed with boys in the acceptable way—with crushes and smiles and day dates to ice skating shows). I didn’t know how to voice the palpable inequity I was absorbing from our society, my culture, the media. That boys were considered the stronger, smarter, faster sex, who should be deferred to and in control. What I couldn’t find words for, but knew from the tips of my bobble ball hair ties to the soles of my patent leather Mary Janes, was that the way girls were devalued wasn’t fair, square or remotely close to justified.
Girls were just as smart and fast and valuable as boys—and once in a while, in between ads for EZ bake ovens and hungry toy babies and household products that would save me from a lifetime of dishpan hands, my TV echoed parts of this truth to me. I saw the “Bionic Woman” and “Wonder Woman” and Billie Jean King with the big glasses and small tennis racket beat the old, blustering Bobby guy in “The Battle of the Sexes.” And then there was Nadia from Romania who proved her ability at the Montreal Olympics, though her dainty and pretty were remarked upon more often than her athleticism and artistry. Even after her repeated displays of superlativeness, she stood there, half-smiling, as they gave most of the credit to her male coach. They might not have been black like me but they were girls like me, girls who liked to rip and run and use their bodies and brains for something other than to attract boys.
In my home, the messages were similarly mixed. My mom had a job just like my dad did. And as a teacher, when I went to work with her, I got to see a woman in charge. Of the space, the lessons, the students. I saw her leadership there, as well as in the house. Mom had as much authority as Dad (if not more) and my dad did the cooking. And since both parents were college graduates and educators, my sister and I were expected to do well in school, go to college and have a career.
Mom even gave my sister and me “School Years” memory books so we could track our progress from Kindergarten through High School. Who our friends and teachers were, our activities, awards, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. This aid to success ended up being one of the most painful reminders of the limited expectations the world had for me. The occupations listed for “Boys”? Policeman, Fireman, Astronaut, Soldier, Cowboy, Baseball Player. But for “Girls”? Mother, Nurse, School Teacher, Airline Hostess, Model, Secretary. In that order.
There was a “fill in the blank” space, so every year from Kinder on I filled it in with “Doctor.” By third grade, someone with a pink marker lined through my “Doctor” and checked “Secretary” instead. I rebelled with my blue marker and rubbed over the pink check next to “Secretary.” I didn’t remember this until I recently found the book, but it spoke volumes that someone in my life thought I was fantasizing if I wanted to be a doctor. In 1976. The same year of the U.S. Bicentennial, 200 years after independence from tyranny was declared and where colonists believed their liberty was worth their death. I, too, was fighting for liberty. My liberty. I wanted Batman, not Barbie, and I was tired of feeling wrong about it.
Years pass, and compliments about my cuteness are directed to me instead of my parents. I didn’t do anything to be cute—DNA did that—so this always feels weird. My mum tells me to not question or argue but just say “thank you.” Dutifully, I do. But being valued solely this way never sits right with me. I wanted “boy-style” compliments, about how clever or strong or skilled at whatever I was—praise that felt earned. I did receive some of this from the adults in my life, right alongside advice like, “Always have bus money so you don’t have to depend on boys for rides,” or, “No one buys the cow if the milk is free,” or, “It’s just as easy to marry a rich man as it is a poor one.”
When my parents separate and divorce, this family fracture ironically gets me more of what I want. Guilt presents include video games and model cars and Star Wars toys. And pants—jeans and corduroys! My mom says when she was younger, she was a tomboy too. She enrolls my sister (and eventually me) in softball, and buys me books about skateboarding but stops short of the skateboard—she thinks I will fall and break my head. If I were a boy, I think, she’d let me break my head. I try to build my own with a plank of wood and wheels from Mom’s ancient metal roller skates. It travels six inches, I fall off and it falls apart. When my dad gets a housekeeper for his new townhouse, she cleans my room and asks him how old his son is. Suddenly Dad won’t buy me any more model cars.
As puberty dawns, boys are still getting the better deal. Most of them grow into muscles and height and undeniable physical dominance. But should this give them more rights? Should more strength automatically equal more power? Boys (and several girls) seem to think so and this thinking is validated at every turn. In government, in movies, in the workplace, in classrooms. They can pick up girls at random and the girls squeal and laugh and cajole the boys to put them down instead of throwing them into the ocean/pool/sofa cushions. All in good fun, right? Not at all a display or reminder of dominance, right? Boys get to act on crushes and initiate kisses and ask for dates without being considered “fast” or “sluts” or “whores.” They also get no periods, no pregnancies, no abortions.
I am handed deodorant, pads and Judy Blume books as my teenage girl starter kit. I dislike the changes and growing pains and expectations of “blossoming into a young woman.” I focus on grades instead of gregariousness—studying instead of a social life. My big sister Lesa, a natural at young womanhood, follows in our grandmother and mother’s kick steps and becomes a varsity cheerleader. I scoff and diminish her choice by saying I’d rather be who people cheer for. Because some girls make fun of other girls for being too “girly.” I do not see the insidious danger of this for decades.
By 1986 I am a senior in high school, and being in the “smart girl” category has been a boon for me. I am not offered a cent for a cute outfit or a good hair day, but Dad pays good money for As and Bs. I also get to wear pants and sneakers and no make up everyday and no one cares. Mom and Lesa are officially the “pretty girls” with pretty power and that is alright by me. I have no jealousy or longing for “pretty” status— though most girls aspire to this, it seems more like a curse than a gift to me. Yes, my mother and sister get preferential treatment and constant compliments, which they enjoy. But I also see them experience the flip side. Men and boys would stalk them both. Put their hands on them without permission. Recklessly follow after them in traffic. This was weekly if not daily for them; for me it was rarely, but it should have been never. It should always be never. But as 99 percent of girls and women will tell you, it’s never never. I am approached by a pimp on a bus who tells me I look sad and he can take care of me. I exit at the next stop and walk the extra mile home to escape him. I am told to smile more times than I am asked for my opinion. One afternoon I’m followed by a man who screams I should be walking behind him and don’t know my place. I run into a 7-11 and stay huddled near the Ms. Pacman machine until he disappears. Oh hell no. Screw being treated like prey. Screw pretty.
Instead I want to be strong and quick. And thanks to Title IX, I can put my body in service to sports—softball, basketball, cross country. I do them all and excel at none. I am average in every way, but the existence of these girls’ teams does not live or die by any one of us having to prove exceptional ability. We have the freedom to suck and stay funded, just like the boys’ teams. This makes me wonder if society needs a version of Title IX not just for the sports field, but for every field. Shouldn’t we demand and legislate programs that provide equal opportunity for both sexes everywhere? So then over time, like with sports, this parity would become the norm? Why not try this out in politics, I think—like maybe in the Senate? After all, there are 100 senators, two from each state, so why not make them 50:50, one male and one female? Wouldn’t that be true equal representation? But I don’t know what to do with these notions, so I keep them to myself. What kind of power do I have to make them happen, anyway? I don’t my want my “smart girl” rep to become a “naive, silly, pie-in-the-sky girl” rep.
High school also offers me a lifelong mentor in the unlikely form of tough-as-nails, no nonsense, AP U.S. history teacher Mr. Safier. He values effort, intelligence and discipline above gender, race, class… or anything else, really. Finally I am celebrated for what I believe counts. Safier is more than safe harbor. He is an equalizer. After repeatedly killing it in his classes, one boy writes in my senior yearbook he’s lived in academic fear of me for almost two years. I love this. Now I have proof. Brains are my field-levelling power. And they are what get me into a top-notch university.
At first, college feels different than high school—better—like there is gender parity. Like “smart” is all that matters. Smart whomevers travel to Boston from wherever to spend four focused years getting smarter. But then the parties start. The blue lights, safety phones and shuttle bus stops are pointed out. Boys casually notice, girls mark their maps. We have political debates. Ideological tangles. We openly protest to take back the night. I make male and female friends of every race and religion and orientation and it all feels equitable and the way the real world should be. I don’t shave my legs all winter. I march with the Black Student Union to the freshman quad to demand I don’t remember what from the Dean. One Christmas I fly home sporting fake Malcolm X glasses, leather Africa medallions and a lot of opinions. My dad picks me up at the airport and later asks everyone in the family but me if I’m a lesbian. Dressed like that, politicized like that, with my “tomboy” history—what else could I be?
What my father does ask me about is what I want to do after college. Whatever it is, I’m told, I should want my boss’ job. That’s where the power is. If you don’t want your boss’ job, you have the wrong job. So if I still want to be a doctor, become Chief of Surgery. If I want to teach, become Teacher of the Year. I do journalism for fun at college because there’s no television station, so I tell him maybe I want to write. Then, Dad says, become the publisher. He sends me articles on mastery and how to achieve it. The bar is set high—as high for me as for the boy he never had, I think, so I accept his challenge. I try to jump that high. Into top positions. Into leadership. Into power.
Unlike Dad though, I think public sector work is for the birds, even when in the “power position.” Dad had achieved that – he rose from community college counsellor to assistant Dean, Dean (the youngest dean in California ever at the time), Vice President, President, then Chancellor of an entire district. He was the top dog, the leader. But then sometimes he would say if he were in the private sector, he would be a CEO making ten times as much money. But it just so happened his heart was in education, and he chose it over what could have been real wealth. Another mixed message I struggled to process. Go for heart or for money or for power? And do they have to be separate?
My power equation, I came to realize, extended beyond my father’s. Mine was leadership, plus affinity, plus money. And, luckily, I told myself, my heart was in writing—television to be specific—a very lucrative field. (Journalism, I’d discovered, paid even less than teaching). So I told him I wanted to follow the Hollywood path. I wanted to come back to California. Come back home.
HAMPTON, Va. (WVEC) — An American treasure is being honored in Hampton. A new facility at the NASA Langley Research Center is named after Katherine Johnson. She’s the woman featured in the movie “Hidden Figures” for her inspiring work at NASA Langley. People knew the mathematician as a “human computer” who calculated America’s first space flights in the 1960s. “I liked what I was doing, I liked work,” said Katherine.
The 99-year-old worked for NASA at a time when it was extremely difficult for African-Americans — especially women — to get jobs in the science field. “My problem was to answer questions, and I did that to the best of my ability at all time,” said Katherine. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She said, “I was excited for something new. Always liked something new.” U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia GovernorTerry McAuliffe, Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck, and “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly were among the dignitaries who were on hand to honor Johnson.
Governor McAuliffe said, “Thank goodness for the movie and the book that actually came out and people got to understand what this woman meant to our county. I mean she really broke down the barriers.” The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility (CRF) is a $23 million, 37,000-square-foot energy efficient structure that consolidates five Langley data centers and more than 30 server rooms. One NASA astronaut, Doctor Yvonne Cagle, said Katherine is the reason she is an astronaut today. “This is remarkable, I mean it really shows that when you make substantive contributions like this, that resonate both on and off the planet. There’s no time like the present.” Doctor Cagle said she’s excited the new building is named after Katherine. “Thank you all, thank everyone for recognizing and bringing to light this beautiful hidden figure,” said Cagle.
The facility will enhance NASA’s efforts in modeling and simulation, big data, and analysis. Much of the work now done by wind tunnels eventually will be performed by computers like those at the CRF. NASA Deputy Director of Center Operations, Erik Weiser said, this new facility will help them with their anticipated Mars landing in 2020.
After Fox 2000‘s space race drama “Hidden Figures” was released last year, an unprecedented amount of United States embassies were reportedly calling the State Department requesting the film. Eventually the movie was screened to nearly 80 locations overseas and because of all those screenings, a new, publicly funded exchange program will bring women from around the world working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to the United States.
The program, called #HiddenNoMore, will bring 50 women from 50 different countries who are working in STEM fields to the United States. The chosen participants will travel to Washington in October before traveling across the country for three weeks meeting with universities, Girl Scouts, and other organizations.
Then they’ll all come together in Los Angeles for a two-day event on the 21st Century Fox lot. Across STEM industries, women, particularly women of color, are vastly underrepresented. “Hidden Figures” already shed light on the important history of black women in mathematics, but with programs like #HiddenNoMore it’s cool that the movie can now help create its future.
Hampton University is welcoming a living legend for their 147th Commencement this May. The historically Black university announced that Katherine G. Johnson, the physicist and mathematician who worked for NASA and was an inspiration behind “Hidden Figures,” would join them as their commencement speaker this year.
As an African-American woman, job options were limited —but she was eventually hired as one of several female mathematicians for the agency that would become NASA,” President Barack Obama said during her Presidential Medal of Freedom honor.
Following the literary and film success of “Hidden Figures,” author Margot Lee Shetterly will turn her attention to two little-known but prominent Black families in Baltimore. Viking Books announced today (April 10) that it has acquired the rights to Shetterly’s next two books.
The first will focus on the mid 20th-century achievements of the Murphys, a publishing family, and the entrepreneurial Adams family. As described by PBS, formerly enslaved patriarch John Henry Murphy founded the The Afro-American newspaper and turned it, with his children, into one of the country’s most widely-read Black titles.
The paper tackled Jim Crow, the lack of Black representation in Baltimore government and other racial justice issues throughout its existence. The Murphys used this influence to successfully advocate local change, including desegregating the University of Maryland‘s law school.
A 2011 Baltimore Sun obituary for Adams family leader William “Little Willie” Adams notes that he and his schoolteacher-turned-politician wife Victorine spun wealth generated in the Great Depression-era underground economy into systematic venture capital and philanthropy. Their investments and donations sustained Black business development, employment and political clout for decades in Baltimore.
According to a Viking press statement about the not-yet titled book, “Shetterly will bring the history of Baltimore to life through the success stories of the Adamses and the Murphys, also showing the contrasting challenges faced by those left behind by redlining, lack of economic opportunity, and urban decay.”
The second book lacks a fixed topic but will also uncover the history of hidden Black figures.
On his way to winning a best picture Oscar for “Moonlight,” a film made for a minuscule $1.5 million, writer-director Barry Jenkins took time between awards-season red carpet appearances for a six-city European promotion tour. It was time well spent.
“Moonlight,” about a poor black boy living in the projects of Miami and struggling with his sexuality, wasn’t supposed to be the kind of movie that wins the best picture Oscar. Its modest coming-of-age narrative, unconventional story structure and outsider characters with no mega stars made it, as filmmaker Mark Duplass said recently with admiration, “a bit of a miracle” that it even reached U.S. theaters. Certainly, it’s not the kind of movie that was expected to make money overseas. After all, says a longstanding Hollywood myth, black films don’t travel.
Yet as of Tuesday, “Moonlight” has made $28.6 million at the international box office — more than its $27.5 million domestic take — for a worldwide total of $56.1 million. With the film still in theaters, even more is expected.“This black film is definitely selling overseas,” Jenkins said to The Times on the red carpet for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, just after he’d returned from Europe.
“Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug,” says Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films, which primarily produces films with African American casts. “It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”
For 1988’s “Coming to America,” the anomaly was the comedic genius of Eddie Murphy, who “transcended race” when the film grossed $160.6 million internationally for a $288.8 million worldwide take. (Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Kevin Hart, Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle are other box office champs for whom the “transcended race” label has been applied.)
For 1995’s “Bad Boys” and its 2003 sequel — which together pulled in a combined $210.3 million internationally and $414.7 million worldwide — it was the fact that the film was an action flick, never mind leads Smith, Martin Lawrence and Gabrielle Union. For 2015’s “Straight Outta Compton,” a $40.4 million payoff internationally (and $201.6 million worldwide), it was the popular music of rap group N.W.A.
Even as three-time Oscar nominee “Hidden Figures,” with its predominantly black cast, has so far made $48.8 million internationally — helping to push its $166 million domestic sales to nearly $215 million worldwide and counting — the myth persists.
When asked about the myth, Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominated for her “Hidden Figures” role, responded simply: “I have two words for you: Will Smith.”
“He was told the same thing [at the beginning of his career] — that he wasn’t going to be taken to promote his film,” she said at the annual pre-Oscars Sistahs Soiree honoring women of color in the industry. “Had he not paid for himself to fly all over the world that very first time, he would not be an international box office star. So they have to start investing and taking black actresses and actors across the world just like they do with unknown white actors. They need to do the same thing for black actors. If you don’t know ’em, why would you go support the film?”