In New Film, Eclipse-Chasing Scientists Overcome Barriers

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The solar eclipse on August 21 may have sparked wonderment and new interest in science everywhere, but it also did something more.

It had a kind of transcendent appeal, said filmmaker Carla Jackson, FCLC ’93, the administrator of the Fordham Theatre program. “We all stopped for a moment … to share something that science can explain, but that is still wonderfully magical,” she said. “I think that America needed this moment.”

As it happens, she had spent the prior months promoting a film that puts a spotlight on eclipses as well as the need to remove barriers so people from diverse backgrounds can realize their dreams of working in science.

Jackson co-produced the film, Black Suns: An Astrophysics Adventure, which is about two African-American astrophysicists who traveled the world to study eclipses. The film was directed by her husband, Kelvin Phillips, with whom Jackson runs a production company called the Bridge, short for “the bridge between dreaming and doing,” as she put it in an interview about the film with WFUV’s Fordham Conversations. (Go to the end of this story to listen to the interview.)

Narrated and co-produced by award-winning cultural astronomer Jarita Holbrook, Ph.D., the documentary centers on Alphonse Sterling, Ph.D., of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and Hakeem Oluseyi, Ph.D., of the Florida Institute of Technology, who traveled to eclipse sites as part of their research involving the solar atmosphere.

The Film’s Origins

Jackson and her husband were drawn to the project because they “try to tell stories that don’t generally get told,” she said. The idea for the film came from Holbrook, who wanted to highlight people of color who are trying to realize their dreams, and to emphasize that “we as a society have to work harder to make sure that we don’t shut doors” to them, Jackson said in the Fordham Conversations interview.

Oluseyi had many barriers to overcome. He grew up with poverty, homelessness, and gang pressures, but still managed to nurture an interest in science and earn a doctorate from Stanford. When he was heading off to college, as the documentary relates, his mother “gave him a hug and a gun,” Jackson said, because of the life his family had known. “They were actually taking care of him,” she said.

Science opened doors for him and leveled the playing field. “People weren’t looking at him as an African American per se; they were looking at him as a budding scientist,” Jackson said.

The film is mainly the story of Sterling and Oluseyi and “some of the difficulties and also some of the wonderful things that have happened along the way” as they pursued science and studied eclipses, she said.

“The whole point of the film is to show that … being a scientist isn’t always just sitting behind a desk and looking at [a]microscope of some sort,” Jackson said. “It’s not always that. And it’s also to show that whatever your background, there’s almost always a way to make something happen in your world if you are determined enough to do it.”

Listen to Carla Jackson being interviewed by Robin Shannon on WFUV’s Fordham Conversations:

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