It was just a year ago when the brilliance of three African American women–Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson burst onto the scene as the movie Hidden Figures introduced us to the black women who had been the brains behind the 1960s space program that sent John Glenn into orbit and brought him safely back again.
Most of us would have never known they existed had it not been for the work of Margot Shetterly and her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and The Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Those ladies never sought after fame. They merely did their work in the shadows, focused on doing it right and doing it well.
Their story became an inspiration because of its connection to history, yet they never set out to make history. In fact, Katherine, Mary and Dorothy weren’t the only ones who were a part of that history. Shetterly says the biggest difference between the “real” story of the hidden figures and the story that is portrayed in the movie is that there were many people who did similar work at NASA; “you [just] can’t make a movie with 300 characters.”
So, I wonder, what other stories were never told? Even those who move behind the scenes have unique experiences. Perhaps their stories can inspire us too. After all, few will ever attain the level of mathematical genius that Katherine Johnson possessed, but there were many smart and capable people with whom she worked. Likewise, only a select few were chosen to be actors in the movie, yet many more worked behind the scenes to make those actors shine.
Take Marc Casey, for example. You might say that Marc Casey was a hidden figure behind Hidden Figures. A fair-skinned, curly-haired guy, he bears a striking resemblance to Taraji P. Henson’s Empire co-star Terrence Howard, but it’s not likely that you’ll ever see Casey’s face on the big screen. He prefers to be behind, rather than in front of a camera lens, which is why he studied film production at Savannah College of Art and design (SCAD). Casey became the second assistant “B” cameraman on Hidden Figures which began filming in Atlanta in the spring of 2016 and he says it was “the most exciting job” he has ever had. “I was really proud to represent the [black] community and my NASA family.”
Yet his job is not what most would consider glamorous. He worked in the shadows–preparing the camera for on set filming, managing onset film inventory, changing batteries, lenses, slating scenes with the clapper, managing the camera’s paperwork and marking the actors’ positions for scenes. It takes a whole team of people working diligently to create a perfect scene, but it can also take one person to destroy an entire day’s worth of work. Casey says a film loader, for example, is “the lowest paying position in the camera department,” but that person could expose the film to light and ruin five hours’ worth of work, so that person is also one of the most important people on the team.
For Casey, getting the Hidden Figures job was a big deal and once he got that gig he thought his career was on an upward trajectory. He had started as a photojournalist at WSAV in Savannah, GA. Soon after, he landed a job as production assistant on Mylie Cyrus’ movie The Last Song and his friendship with veteran photographer Lee Blasingame paved the way for several other jobs that led to this one. It seemed like God had arranged everything perfectly! He had been careful to walk a straight path, following the rules, being dependable, likable, hard-working…he was certain, now, that doors would swing wide open for him! After all, this movie was receiving high acclaim, an Oscar buzz even!
To be affiliated with a movie like Hidden Figures was certainly a high point for Marc Casey, but it proved, instead, to be a turning point.
Casey says after production on the movie wrapped “the bottom dropped out” from under him and his winning streak came to an end. “2016 was the hardest year in the film industry. After Hidden Figures my well went dry. The phone calls for jobs disappeared. I was looking for other opportunities, even considered leaving the film industry. I had to work, kids do not feed themselves.”
For a time, Casey’s circumstances were similar to his movie counterparts: in the movie, Katherine’s supervisor repeatedly obscured key information that she needed to do her job; Mary was refused entrance into an all-white school which was the only one that offered the courses she needed to earn her degree, and Dorothy was escorted out of the library where she was searching for a book about the emerging technology.
But, James 1:5 says “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all” and Casey says an important lesson that he learned from his low point was that “sometimes the knowledge you obtain is the only weapon you have.” Although some of the specific scenarios in Hidden Figures were fiction, their message was not. Katherine out-smarted her colleague’s treachery, Mary used the power of rhetoric to sway a court order in her favor and Dorothy cunningly defied injustice and “self-checked” a FORTRAN book from the “whites only” public library so that she could understand what was coming.
Casey didn’t know what was coming, but he knew that his best chance for survival was to make himself more marketable; thus, he added to his skillset by becoming an underwater camera technician. He knew that the movie industry would not always call for a second assistant camera guy, but that there would be fewer calls to make if they needed someone with a more specialized knowledge. Fast forward to 2017 and thanks to Hydroflex, a leader in professional underwater cinematography equipment, Casey has worked on about ten productions as an underwater camera technician so far. The company has a list of people whom they consider to be certified once they attend the Hydroflex and Society of Camera Operators (SOC) bi-yearly training. “I have experience with the equipment and I have become the ‘go to’ guy for underwater camera work in Atlanta,” says Casey who attended the training event in 2012. Casey is on the short list because of the amount of time and experience required and “since Atlanta has become the ‘Hollywood of the south’” Casey is in a good place.
The work that Casey does now is not the work that he thought he would be doing, but it is work that he enjoys. “Diving and being in the water is what I love” he says. In spite of the road blocks and low points, Casey held on to his faith and never lost sight of his purpose. Casey’s story is unique because of the opportunities that he’s had to be so close to fame and yet so far from the limelight. By standing behind the camera he is always in a position just beyond the public eye. However, although his story plays out in the shadows, it is a story that has seen the light of day.
Many of us strive for success, encounter obstacles then have to re-group, perhaps we even veer off course and wonder what is it that God is doing in our lives? Yet, often, what God is doing is working out a path we could have never imagined for ourselves. Casey’s story reveals the secret of a hidden figure. It’s about doing your work with no expectations. Like the other hidden figures who didn’t set out to make history, Casey wasn’t looking for fame. His goal was just to do his best: “integrity is the only thing you have,” he says; thus, he did his work like every other hidden figure–as if the world was watching and in the end, it paid off!
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