Hidden Figures is a 2016 movie which received three nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards, starring the great Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst. The plot is unbelievable, and wonderful: the movie reveals how an all-female team of African-American mathematicians played a crucial role in NASA during the development of their space program, between the late fifties and early sixties. The untold story is about a formidable threesome, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
It’s a story of struggle against not only race but also gender discrimination, fought by the three black protagonists just to be able to work and study like the white men. And it’s a story of passion, for math and technology, which for too long has been locked in a drawer -perhaps of some Hollywood producer. Even if a bit late, a well deserved recognition is at last arrived for these heroines: the movie and the book -on which the story is based- have brought the matter to the attention of the general public and, in 2015, Katherine Johnson (at the age of 98) received by President Obama the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available to US civilians.
Hidden Figures gained three nominees at the Oscars this year: for Best Picture, the movie is directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent, with Bill Murray); for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the ever-astonishing Octavia Spencer (already seen and loved in The Help); and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). The movie is in fact based on the untold true story of the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, daughter of a NASA researcher and raised in Langley, Virginia, near the Research Center where Johnson and her colleagues worked.
Katherine Johnson arrived at NASA in 1953, in the pre-IBM era, as a real “human computer”, to do hand calculations needed for scientific research; then moved to the space program, where she distinguished herself among her colleagues, all white men. Her precise calculations have been critical not only to the mission of the first American in space (Alan Shepard aboard the Mercury 7), but also served as the brain behind the missions of Apollo 11 and 13.