With Celestial Documentary, Theater Alumna Shoots for the Stars

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The life stories of two globetrotting African-American eclipse chasers will take center stage in a new documentary co-produced by Fordham’s theatre program administrator Carla Jackson, FCLC ’93.

Black Suns: An Astrophysics Adventure, also produced by award-winning cultural astronomer Jarita Holbrook, Ph.D., and Kelvin Phillips, follows scientists Alphonse Sterling of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Hakeem Oluseyi of the Florida Institute of Technology as they track the solar atmosphere during the May 20, 2012 annular solar eclipse and the Nov. 14, 2012 total solar eclipse. Holbrook, who appears in the film, is also the film’s narrator, and Phillips is the director.

“People don’t realize that there are many persons of color who are really interested in doing great things in the sciences, and are doing it in spite of their difficult backgrounds, multiple ‘noes,’ and a general lack of support,” she said. “These are stories that need to be told.”

The Common Language of Science

The documentary shows that, although Sterling and Oluseyi share some similarities, they come from different walks of life.

Sterling, who earned a doctorate in physics at the University of New Hampshire, is described as a typical “science nerd.” He spent more than 15 years in Japan, where he honed his solar physics research. He served as a contractor for the Naval Research Laboratory, worked at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, and served as the NASA liaison for the Hinode (Solar-B) solar satellite project.

Before making his mark in astronomy, Oluseyi—a 2012 TED Global Fellow, and a frequent contributor to the Discovery Channel and National Geographic—faced poverty, homelessness, gang pressures, and other challenges. Jackson said the Florida Tech professor, who was raised by a single mother in the inner city, “beat all the odds” and went on to earn a doctorate in physics from Stanford University before working at the college. Today, on leave from Florida Tech, Oluseyi is serving as a Space Science Education Manager at NASA in Washington, D.C.

“[Sterling and Oluseyi] found their common language of science,” said Jackson. “Whether you’re interested in science or another subject, you have to understand that it’s not about where you came from. It’s about what you can do now, and how you can make it happen.”

Black Suns recounts the thrill of Sterling’s and Oluseyi’s pursuits of one of nature’s most captivating celestial events–eclipses–and the duo’s journeys to Japan and Australia to observe them. The documentary also sheds light on their personal journeys to becoming accomplished astrophysicists, and the obstacles they faced as minorities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field.

Watching the gifted black astrophysicists accomplish their goals on the big screen can inspire people of all races, ages, and backgrounds to reach for their dreams, Jackson said, despite the struggles they may face trying to get there.

“It’s important for young people of color to see people who look like them doing things that they couldn’t dream of—or maybe in some cases, were never told they could do,” she said.

Black Suns: An Astrophysics Adventure makes its world premiere at the 7th Annual Art of Brooklyn Film Festival on Friday, June 9 in Brooklyn, New York.

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