Review of Hidden Figures

Math has no color

Mathematics has no color. Mathematics has no gender or sex. Mathematical truths are universal, and may be discovered by anyone with sufficient talent and perseverance. Mathematics doesn’t care how much money you have in your bank account or what style of shoes you wear.

That’s what I would like to believe.

The truth is another matter. Our society has discriminated against people of color and women over a long period. It comes as no surprise then that both groups were historically ignored for their mathematical and scientific talents. There was a time, not so long ago, when women were not hired in mathematics departments, and the same was true for people of color. Even now, most mathematics departments in Canada and the US have fewer than 20% of their tenured faculty consisting of women.

NASA in the 1960s

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The movie Hidden Figures moved me. It left me both inspired and frustrated. Why? I was inspired by the positive difference the protagonists were able to make at NASA, facing overwhelming odds. I’m frustrated because of the countless breakthroughs in mathematics that we were (and continue to be) collectively denied to generations of women and people of color. How many discoveries have we overlooked by excluding most of the human race from STEM?

Monae, Henson and Spencer's real-life counterparts: Jackson, Johnson and Vaughan.
The real-life Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughan.

Set at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures is the story of three pioneering African-American women in STEM. It’s based on the best-selling book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  The scientists were: Katherine G. Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by actress and pop star Janelle Monáe.

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Henson as Johnson writing out launch trajectories in Hidden Figures.

While all three performances were brilliant (for instance, Spencer was nominated for a Golden Globe and now for an Oscar), I want to single out Henson’s visceral performance of Johnson. She is the soul of the movie and outshines everyone else in her scenes. She’s had great success on the show Empire, winning a Golden Globe and nominated for an Emmy. With this movie, however, her celebrity is about to go into orbit. Hollywood is taking notice. It was announced this Tuesday that the movie is nominated for three Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (for Octavia Spencer), and the biggie, Best Picture.

Henson’s scene when she is confronted by Kevin Costner’s character Al Harrison—the director of the Space Task Group—stole the movie for me. Each day, Johnson would run a mile across the NASA, papers in hand, to use the “colored washroom”. Harrison berates her one day for going missing, not knowing the real reason for her absence. What unfolds after that is epic.

Educational without preaching

Hidden Figures steers clear of preachiness or familiar tropes in the genre. The movie has a great message and spotlights a part of American history that is largely unknown, even to my fellow mathematicians and scientists. And it does it in a way that is moving, thoughtful, and entertaining.

The mathematical and STEM communities didn’t step up and tell the stories of Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson before now. It took Shetterly’s book to bring their work into focus; the film has done that on an even larger platform. I would especially encourage anyone with even a passing interest in mathematics, science, or engineering to see the film. Those interested in the space race and/or social justice will also enjoy it.

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The mathematics in the movie is not its centerpiece, however, and what is discussed is not too esoteric. There is mention of Euler’s method and Gram-Schmidt orthogonalization, but they are brief references only. Self-professed math haters will find nothing here to complain about.

There is also a great supporting cast with Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. We also hear from the recently departed astronaut and US Senator John Glenn (played by Glenn Powell). Colonel Glenn is portrayed as one of the few colorblind members of the NASA team, who literally won’t go into space without Johnson’s trajectory calculations. This is a fitting tribute to a legendary space explorer.

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Jon Glenn meeting Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures.

We need everyone

One of the main messages for me from Hidden Figures is that all of us need to contribute to help push the human race to new frontiers in STEM. Putting humans on Mars, curing cancer, or proving the Riemann hypothesis will require the genius of every person. Not just one group of people, but all people.

Traditionally, white men have been the thought leaders in mathematics. History books are filled with the lives and stories of great mathematicians like Newton, Gauss, Riemann, and Euler. That’s terrific and we need to celebrate those historic figures. But we can’t overlook the contributions of women in mathematics such as Emmy Noether, Sofia Kovalevskaya, and Ingrid Daubechies (the latter is still very much alive). We have begun the long road to equalizing gender disparity in mathematics, and re-calibrating our institutional structures so that everyone, regardless of their background, has an equal chance to contribute.

Great Women of Mathematics Poster
Great Women of Mathematics poster.

Maybe one day soon math will be truly colorless and genderless.

For me, great art both inspires and educates. It shows us what is possible and teaches us empathy. Hidden Figures does that. By spotlighting three pioneers of STEM who happen to be women of color, the film reminds us of the infinite potential of human beings to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Run (preferably not in heels) and see this movie!

Anthony Bonato

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