Film “Hidden Figures” Explores the Untold Stories of Women in the Space Race

The trailer for new film Hidden Figures debuted this weekend and, I kid you not, watching it gives me chills.

The film, which is landing in theaters in January 2017, is based on the true story of African American women who worked as mathematicians and engineers for NASA in the 1960s. They were the original computers—long before the hardware computers we know today made high-level math much easier to calculate.

In her book Hidden Figures, author Margot Lee Shetterly describes the lives of women who played significant roles in Americans getting into orbit and then to the moon. Their story is rarely told, but these women computers were crucial to NASA. Last year, Barack Obama awarded the presidential medal of freedom—America’s highest civilian honor—to a 97-year-old mathematician named Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson. In her job at NASA, Johnson calculated the trajectory for astronaut John Glenn’s pioneering space mission to orbit Earth. Johnson co-authored the research and equations that laid out how to send Glenn into orbit and how to bring him back home safely. In the film, Taraji P. Henson will play Johnson, part of a stellar cast that includes Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Kevin Costner.

Octavia Spencer told The New York Times that she is excited about the film specifically because it focuses on women’s stories—not on the men who usually get attention for their roles in the space race.  “This is a female-driven movie about contributions that women really made, to our world, not just our society.  That’s a big statement.”

The trailer gives the impression that the film will be both celebratory and critical, highlighting the women’s mathematical brilliance but also clearly addressing the sexist and racist barriers they faced at work. The trailer briefly shows a scene where one of the engineers is mistaken for the cleaning lady. A white NASA employee passes her, handing her a trash can, saying, “This wasn’t emptied last night.” She says, “Oh, I’m not the—“ but he’s already gone. That echoes a sad reality: 48 percent of Black women currently working in STEM fields report that they have been mistaken for a custodian at least once. In her book, Shetterly explains that while it was a huge deal that African American women were able to get the chance to work at NASA in fields that usually refused to hire them, the office was still largely segregated, right down to the “white-only” and “colored-only” lunch room. Hopefully, the film will be a huge step toward giving these women the credit they deserve.

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by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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