Empathy, Hidden Figures, and Philando Castile

You know that scene in Hidden Figures when Katherine Johnson answers her superior’s question about where she goes for 40 minutes a day?  He’s upset because she’s always gone when he needs her.  She responds and he’s dumbfounded: she has to run across NASA’s campuses (in heels, hose, and a skirt in the Florida heat and rain) to find a colored bathroom to relieve herself a couple times a day.  When he confronts her, she is soaked and exhausted and has evidently had enough.  

Irate, Johnson yells at not only her boss, but the room full of white men, educating them on her required journey to the bathroom, as well as the subpar coffee pot that she must use but they are unwilling to touch.  This scene is why I love historical fiction. While the movie is based on true events and real women, this specific scene didn’t actually happen.  But it could have.  Many scenes like it did indeed happen in real life under segregation and Jim Crow.  Such scenes are effective because they do much more than report historical facts—they cause empathy.  

By this time in the movie, the audience feels like we know Johnson.  She is a protagonist in every way: smart, driven, cool under pressure, long suffering, and the clear underdog because of both her ethnicity and gender.  We are cheering for her.  When she unloads her frustrations—which we all agree are valid and undeserved—we are so glad she did.  We are inwardly exclaiming, “Yeah, you guys!  How did you not know this?  Open your eyes, you self-absorbed fools!”  Because we’ve seen what she’s been through, we understand her anger, we don’t question it, and we are relieved to see her voice the injustices she’s been suffering.  

Like good historical fiction and non-fiction works, Hidden Figures draws us into the realities of life for black women in the 1960s.  It opens the eyes of the audience.  It imparts empathy.  You cannot help but imagine yourself in the shoes of black Americans in the segregated south when you watch this film and others like it. 

And empathy is what we need in America.  Right now.  So badly.  This scene in Hidden Figures speaks to our current moment. 

As we respond to the Philando Castile verdict we, the white community, have some choices:

  • We can vehemently defend the police officer and assume it was Castile’s fault that he was shot dead.  
  • We can respond with apathy, blowing it off as another unfortunate killing of a black man who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. 
  • Or we can listen, as the men at NASA did, when Johnson couldn’t take it anymore and enlightened them as to all she endured without their knowing. 

We ultimately rejoice in that scene in Hidden Figures because the men listened.  Their eyes were opened to another’s experience and their empathy drove them to understand.  They learned something they had not known and progress was made.  If they had ignored Johnson or brushed off her words as hyperbolic, emotional, or untrue, the story would have taken a tragic and abrupt ending.   

The killing of Philando Castile and its subsequent acquittal is a poignant moment—we are a nation divided racially, politically, and every which way.  We have the opportunity now to either believe or disbelieve our fellow black countrymen and women.  May we be found quick to listen and slow to speak.  May we have our eyes opened to another’s experience and may empathy drive us towards progress.  



Endnote: I’m including here two videos, as I feel they are helpful in promoting empathy, as we imagine ourselves in the shoes of Castile, his girlfriend, and her baby.  Know that the first video is somewhat graphic, but does indeed aid in our understanding of Castile’s death. 

And the second video is footage of his girlfriend and her baby after his death.  This video is especially heartbreaking.  I cannot imagine, as a mom, both myself and my child witnessing the point-blank shooting death of our loved one, being handcuffed for no reason, and finally left alone to process such trauma in the back of a police car.  

Click the links below each picture to view the videos. 

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