John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are America’s well-known and celebrated heroes who traveled into outer space. But it was the work of unknown black women mathematicians and engineers that helped them get there.
The film HiddenFigures, which opens in theaters nationwide today, features the stories of the black women who worked at NASA under Jim Crow conditions and helped the United States accomplish some of its greatest successes during the Space Race.
The film is based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly who was committed to telling the story of the large group of black women who worked at NASA that she heard about growing up in Virginia that most of the country didn’t know about.
“It’s time that they get their moment in the sun. We’ve seen John Glenn…But when we see him we didn't get to see Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson but now we do,” Shetterly said at a screening of the film in New York City. “The thing that I am so excited about is they are here. We are all here celebrating them. And these women are never ever going back into the historical shadows, not ever."
The story of the black women mathematicians and engineers at NASA is one of many of examples of black women’s contributions that is virtually absent from history. The Hidden Figures book is crucial because it is an important starting point for telling black women’s influence on a celebrated era in American history where they were overshadowed. Moreover, the book gave birth to the film which is amplifying black women’s brilliance through popular culture.
The film focuses on three women Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae). Spencer was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in the film. Monae found her reward in portraying a pioneer.
"I got to portray a fighter, someone who wasn't going to let discrimination stand in the way of her dreams,” Monae said at a New York City film screening. “She knew she had something else to offer and she changed the what it meant to be an engineer at NASA and became the first African-American woman" (engineer there).
For Shetterly writing about the black women of NASA was about centering their stories and lives to give them their proper place in history.
“For me writing the book, it was always about the perspective of these characters…and their experiences with segregation and the schools,” Shetterly said. “I wrote the story that I wanted to read. I wanted to see these women as my protagonist and superheroes and ordinary extraordinary people.”
The film Hidden Figures is important because it offers audiences an uncommon Hollywood portrayal of black women– complex and developed characters, Shetterly said.
“One thing that has been very rare is to see a black woman in a protagonist situation, as three-dimensional people,” she said. “We’re talking about mathematicians, mothers, wives, complicated people, not perfect. I’m delighted with that. All of these women were that in real life.”
The women’s stories portrayed in Hidden Figures can also serve as an example for young black women to pursue their dreams in fields related to science, said Monae who mentioned that her music and style are influenced by her appreciation for innovation, technology and heroes such as black woman astronaut Mae Jemison.
“I just think it’s so important for young girls when they see this movie so that they fall in love especially if they had a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Monae said. “Now people will have new superheroes. Now people will have context because what these women have achieved is the coolest thing that I have read about and been apart of in a very long time.”