Taraji P. Henson ("Empire") will star alongside Octavia Spencer ("The Help") and musician Janelle Monae in a film that follows the journeys of three African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race. "Hidden Figures," which is based on a true story, features the women who helped launch John Glenn into space on the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.
"Hidden Figures" shines the spotlight on unsung scientists Katherine Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer), who made the Friendship 7 mission possible. These women were members of a group of "human computers" charged with calculating flight paths and other aeronautical measurements necessary for NASA to win the space race.
Because of Jim Crow laws, these scientists were segregated from white scientists and were even referred to as "colored computers."
The film will detail the myriad struggles faced by Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan as they navigate civil rights and gender inequality issues while performing groundbreaking science. The film will showcase both their personal and professional struggles during a tumultuous time in American history. Variety notes, "The three women crossed all gender, race and professional lines while embarking on the mission."
The period drama is an adaptation of journalist Margot Lee Shetterly’s "Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race." The book recounts the lives of several female scientists, including Christine Darden and Gloria Champine, who are not reported to appear in the film. Shetterly, whose father was one of NASA's first African-American engineers, is also the founder of The Human Computer Project, which according to Shetterly, "will also provide context on the role that all women played in the early days of aeronautics and astronautics, and the significant contributions that women have made over the years as computers to ballistics, meteorology, the social sciences, and more."
Most people can name the famous participants in the space race, like John Glenn, but many minorities often go unnoticed. But that's changing. Katherine Johnson’s contributions to the space program were acknowledged by President Obama in 2015 when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
As more books and films about women and minorities shine light on these unsung pioneers, the trailblazers will get the recognition they deserve. And as younger audiences discover these heroes, their understanding and enthusiasm for STEM fields is likely to grow. (In fact, if you want to know more about NASA and race relations, there's a compelling history of the changing role of race on the NASA website.