Hidden Figures is the riveting and inspirational story of three black female mathematicians who excelled against all odds at NASA. Many of us are just now learning their names: Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughn.
So much of our history has been omitted from the curricula of many schools. That's a huge chunk of the foundation of racism that our country is built on. It's the reason that the three women who are highlighted in Hidden Figures, as well as the many black women who worked right alongside them and many others, have been ignored by history. It's the reason that today, some 54 years later, we still have to proclaim that black lives matter when we see evidence right in front of our eyes that says they don't.
Astronaut John Glenn's orbit around Earth in 1962 was called one of the most important flights in U.S. history, and it no doubt is. NASA even says that because of that mission, Glenn "became a national hero and a symbol of American ambition." And yet there was no mention of the numbers that made the mission successful, or that the only numbers Glenn trusted were Johnson's.
At a press conference for Hidden Figures, Taraji P. Henson, who plays Johnson, said, “When you’re playing a person who’s real, there’s a responsibility to get it right. As soon as I signed on, I asked if she was still alive. I had to meet her immediately.” Johnson and her family were delighted not only to meet the superstar but also to have her play the beloved matriarch, who is now 98 years old.
And while Henson felt that she was in the presence of a queen-and-superhero hybrid, it was Johnson's humility that floored her. Johnson told Henson that it's just the way things were and she just wanted to do her job and do it well. Henson was blown away, as we will be with her performance. Taraji P. Henson becomes Katherine Johnson—embodying struggle and flight.
Octavia Spencer, who portrays Vaughn, was the first to sign on to the hefty project, and she just knew she needed to be a part of it. So of course the director, Theodore “Ted” Melfi, locked the Oscar-winning actress in. At the Hidden Figures press conference, of her portrayal of Vaughn, she said, "There’s enough negative images of black women out there. I didn’t want to portray her in some stereotype. I wanted to make sure her integrity was preserved.”
These heroes' images are not only preserved but reinvigorated. These women will help future generations defy the world's limitations. Margot Shetterly, the author of the book Hidden Figures, which was being produced the same time as the movie, says that her mission was to expand the idea of what black women were capable of. "They went to work and brought their A game. They did our country and women a great service. They are the American dream," Shetterly says.
This is a history lesson we all deserve. Knowing that black women were the backbone of one of the biggest space missions in America is knowing that we can be anything. It's knowing that #BlackGirlMagic is an actual trait in our DNA that allows us to excel gracefully. It's knowing that even when we're "hidden figures," we're still there, making our mark.
Check out the trailer: