My Tears, Movies, and the Age of Obama.

Aug 17, 2016

I am a film fanatic. I suspect my father is too. Growing up in Lagos we were fed a steady diet of films from the golden age of Hollywood.

We had a vast library of RKO movies. I grew up watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire fly down to Rio.

Flying Down to Rio

Sang my heart out with Judy Garland to Meet me in St Louis. Watched with fascination, the story of antebellum South unfold in Gone With the Wind. Till today, I can still give a convincing imitation of Prissy saying “Lordy, we sure is rich now!” No Prissy you ain’t. Scarlett and co are rich, you my dear are their slave. We watched everything, from Sidney Poitier in Guess Who is Coming to Dinner to Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther. As much as I love the oldies, I don’t remember encountering any engineering inspired plot lines.

The movie Seven Pounds holds a special place in my heart; it was the first time in my sentient experience of movies where I saw a black man speak in awe about his desire to be an engineer. That scene is seared into my psyche. I think I actually cried. Seven Pounds

I also cried when I watched Disney’s Big Hero Six because it was the first time I saw an image of an inclusive and diverse technical lab. Big Hero 6 - Nerd Lab While I was filled with joy seeing those images on the screen, I could identify with several aspects of them, but I wasn’t really in them was I?

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Let’s throw it back to spring 2006. There I was in Memphis Tn, at a campaign rally of Harold Ford Jr listening to Senator Obama stump for Ford. My friend, the campaign manager, whispered in my ear, that man is going to be the next president of the United States. Child, please, this bromance has to stop. You are beginning to remind me of gangstalicious. SMH.

And then bruh announced he was running. What!! Hold up, umm can someone kindly remind the gentleman from Hawaii that he is a first term senator and BLACK. It ain’t gonna happen. Please, Senator Obama, do me a favor, have several seats because you are not going to mess with my girl Hillz. And then Iowa happened, he got that Oprah bounce and the rest is history. However, I couldn’t have imagined the impact of the Obama white house on my long, storied preoccupation with crying at the cinema.

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I am sure by now you must have heard about the problem with diversity in tech. For me, the fatigue has set in, but forge ahead, I must. Since techies are basically the new rockstars it comes as no surprise that Hollywood as turned its narrative lens to the Valley. Yes, there was Office Space, that amazing creation from Mike Judge, but in it, the techies were the loser nerds.

Hollywood isn’t telling that story, nõ, they are telling the story of the techie as the superhero. We have Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, the two Steve Jobs movies, Silicon Valley series on HBO and so on. Right now tech stories are the new black.

We in the valley love our stories. Even I am not immune. When I was thinking about choosing between life at UC Berkeley or Stanford as a CSEd grad student, I broke that tie by selecting the institution that was closest to Skywalker Ranch and Pixar. I wanted to benefit from proximal serendipity. I could picture myself drinking coffee at Bluebottle while chatting it up with a cute animator from Pixar.

A big chunk of Silicon Valley futurist driven tech is fueled in part by the movies we all watched growing up. From Star Trek’s tricorder to the holograms of Star Wars. Think am kidding? The Xprize foundation has a $10 million prize for any team that can build one. Xprize Tricorder

It’s only natural to daydream about being our favorite heroes in movies. For a large chunk of Silicon Valley, movies were nothing more than looking into the future they were going to create. When they daydreamed about the day when they could build the science of the future, no one told them it was ridiculous. It wasn’t a far stretch to consider a scenario in which those dreams could become reality. Usually, what you see acts as a conditioner to what you believe is possible. So a generation which grew up watching tricorders on screen ends up creating a prize to build tricorders. In that scenario, media was a foreshadow of what’s to come.

While we are giving ourselves hi-fives that we are now the superheroes in our own stories, some of us who were actual full-on participants in these tech myths have either been left out or entirely written out of our own stories. Case in point, the 2013 Jobs movie with Ashton Kutcher. Megan Smith, the CTO of the United States tells it best:

“There are these incredible photographs from the launch of the Macintosh in the 80’s, and the Rolling Stone pictures that were published. The historic record shows this group of 10 people in a pyramid–actually 11, seven men and four women. Every photograph you see with the Mac team has Joanna Hoffman, who was the product manager, a great teammate of Steve Jobs, and Susan Kare who did all the graphics and user interface on the artist side. None of them made it into the Jobs movie. They’re not even cast. And every man in the photographs is in the movie with a speaking role. It’s debilitating to our young women to have their history almost erased.

The original Macintosh team in the 1980s

This issue is even more heartbreaking when there are virtually no stories told of the role that ethnic minority women played in the history of computing. Incredible stories like that of Katherine Johnson, a Black female NASA mathematician whose job it was to calculate the trajectory of the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth; and Apollo 11, the first human mission to the moon.

Katherine Johnson

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Back to Obama, before he became the first black president, sorry Bill Clinton, America had gotten used to the idea of a black man as president through our stories. There was Morgan Freeman as president in 1998’s Deep Impact; ten years before Obama became president. Then there was Dennis Haysbert as President Palmer in 24. 24 ran from 2001 to 2007. Haysbert left in season 5 and was succeeded as president by D.B. Woodside, another African American man. The show ended just one year before Obama became president. Yet another case of media acting as a foreshadow of what’s to come.

From 2008 on, I became aware of a shift in the kinds of stories that started getting told, especially when it came to the portrayal of women of African descent. 2012 saw the debut of Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope. The first African American to lead in a TV series in over 40 years. We all watched as Olivia sashayed up and down in her Burberry coat and Prada bag every week. But there was still this nagging feeling, at the end of the day, Olivia might be the one running things, but she is still a side-piece.

It seems America wasn’t ready yet for an African America woman without any tinge of a “but” in her story. With the hit of Scandal came Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating as the Criminal Law professor with questionable ethics. Speaking of questionable ethics, we can’t leave out Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Cookie in Fox’s breakout Empire.

For the first time in two-plus generations, Americans have several choices when it comes to shows in which they can see Black women in the lead. As much as I occasionally enjoy watching Cookie, Olivia, and Annalise, I would never want to be them. These female characters are entertaining but extremely problematic.

Perhaps Hollywood was testing the waters, trying to decide how truly progressive our society was becoming. The success of the Shondaland shows and Empire led to even more audacious stories of black women. When it comes to us, media isn’t limited to the role of foreshadowing of what to come. Instead, we have already achieved great intellectual feats and through eight years of a black family in the white house on our screens, and on our feeds, the world is thankfully getting to see us as great intellects.

Finally, Katherine’s story is coming to the big screen next January. I am not sure, but this might actually be the first time in the history of Hollywood where a big name studio has put together a story with black female leads as American-Scientific heroes.

Hidden Figures

Before Obama, Hollywood would never have green-lighted a movie like this, they would have said it was unbelievable even though it actually happened. We have always been there, it is just that our stories don’t get told. Come January 2017, I will be stocking up on tissue as I plan on watching this movie over and over again.