Filmmakers Lisa Cortes and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza’s greatest asset is the insightful and emotional testimony of the pioneering team of astronauts they interview.

Tackling a broad subject, the contribution of black astronauts to the American space program, Lisa Cortes and Diego Hurtado de Mendozas The Space Race draws its strength from the specific and detailed stories of its subjects. Spanning nearly 60 years of historical fiction and focusing on a handful of barrier-breaking scientists, National Geographic’s paper is the kind that makes audiences question how they’ve never heard of these folks before.

Cortes and de Mendoza weave archival footage with astronaut testimony in a fast and informative way. By quickly unraveling the fascinating story, they command the audience’s attention and reward it. Blink or look away for a second and you might miss an interesting factoid. But their greatest asset turns out to be the astronauts themselves. Their memories are emotional and entertaining, going a long way to paint such a captivating narrative. The astronauts talk about the burden of being an example and the challenges of having to navigate both white and black spaces to be successful. Yet, most movingly, they speak to the camaraderie born of being together in these sacred and mostly white spaces.

The historical and cultural context in which the interviews are presented makes them even more entertaining. Most people know the late Nichelle Nichols and her role as Uhura on TV’s Star Trek, but less likely they realize that she was a NASA spokeswoman tasked with recruiting people and women of color for the space program. The film also intertwines other cultural figures, such as author Octavia Butler, whose science fiction books dared to imagine black people in space and were a major part of the Afrofuturism movement. Historically, the conflict of some civil rights leaders with NASA, the competition with the USSR that managed to get a black person into space first by sending a Cuban astronaut and the devastating effect of the Challenger disaster, give the film dimensions wider.

But it is the personal memories of the astronauts that make this film engaging. The story begins with Ed Dwight, who was tapped in the early 1960s to join the space program and become what he calls the first Negro in space. His nomination was political, born out of John F. Kennedy’s desire to win the black vote. And so it was a pretty rocky experience. He was never accepted by his peers or by his superiors. In fact he was intimidated and told that he only got where he got because of his race. The PR machine has taken its toll on him and his family. He was not fully accepted by black organizations, such as the NAACP, who wanted him to speak more about the civil rights movement. When Kennedy was assassinated, he was unceremoniously let go. Despite the setbacks he’s faced, what emerges is Dwight’s humor and pride in being a part of this story, even if he didn’t ultimately achieve all of his goals.

As the story moves into the 1970s and 1980s, it expands to cover more astronauts, including some who have remained unknown until now because their missions were classified. Others Guion Bluford, Ron McNair, Charles Bolden and Fredrick Gregory must compete with each other to become the first to reach space. Yet as they tell it, it wasn’t on their minds at all. The emotion in their voices, and the way they remember how they navigated NASA together and separately, bespeaks friendship, even as the film also captures a note of remorse for not always being aware of the commonality of their experiences.

The Space Race tells the story of how these African-American men, as they call themselves, came together to delve into their history, how they formed a smaller, more meaningful community within the larger organizational structure, and how this community is managed to support each other through the most recent significant events, such as the murder of George Floyd. By telling the specific moving stories of a few men, The Space Race manages to provide such a rich perspective into their experience that it transcends its goals to shed light on worthy lives and untold history, to entertain and educate.

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