The movie Hidden Figures hits select theaters on Christmas Day. It tells the story of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Their work helped John Glenn become the first American astronaut to make a complete orbit of the Earth.
For many, this will be the first time they've heard of these women, or the fact that African-American women worked at NASA in a scientific capacity in the 1950s. In fact, all of the stars of the film, including Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Johnson, Janelle Monae, who plays Mary Jackson, and Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan, assumed the script they were reading was a work of fiction. As Spencer said in an interview “Black women being recruited to work as mathematicians at NASA’s southern installation defies what we think we know about American history.”
In a previous piece named On Heroes, I wrote about this exact issue while discussing another of NASA's African-American mathematicians, Annie Jean Easley. In the piece, I mention how an African-American astronaut I met hadn't heard of Easley, one of her predecessors. Of special import is the reaction my astronaut friend had upon finding out about Easley's existence, as the disappointment of feeling denied a role model washed over her face. Why do we bury these important figures whose contributions make black and brown girls feel like they have a future in STEM? Why do we bury these stories that expand the possibilities for what black and brown girls feel like they can achieve?
I said it before and I'll say it again: Having visible examples of people that look like you in an aspirational professional field is powerful. They matter. That's why I'm excited about this movie, and the attention it's getting from a national advertising campaign. As a bonus, it's Christmas Day release is a sign of potential Oscar Buzz, giving me hope this movie will be as excellent as I want it to be, and that the conversation around it will continue well into February.
The only way positive, diverse stories get told to a mainstream audience is when the economics make sense. I'll be at the theatre opening day to see this film and I'm encouraging everyone I know to go too. Please show your support.