Hidden Figures And Their Hidden Stories. Part 1

Some facts behind the 'Hidden Figures' book and movie straight from the source.

Back in 1961, NASA launched the first American into space. The world didn’t know about the Black women geniuses who helped put him there — until now. In the new movie ‘Hidden Figures‘, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae send the unknown stoiy into the stratosphere.

‘Power to the people!’ Taraji P. Henson says. Actually, she shouts this in the back of a chauffeured black car. The actress is headed to New York City’s JFK airport en route to Chicago, where, for the next couple of months, she will be taping her hit TV show Empire. But what has her breathless is the news announced mere minutes ago that the Army would stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to explore alternate routes — a victory for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe water protectors and their allies. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all year!” she adds, according to the Essence magazine.

If art is considered to be a form of resistance, then Henson’s new film, ‘Hidden Figures’, could be thought of as a kind of grenade. It recounts the true tale of Katherine Johnson (played by Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Man’ Jackson (Janelle Monae): three brilliant Black women mathematicians who made history and changed the world while working at NASA.

The action centers around Johnson, a math prodigy and mother of three who began working at NASA (then NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in the early 1950’s. During that collision of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, the company wanted to recruit Black women with college degrees. Computing (performing mathematical equations and calculations by hand) was women’s work, while men with the same qualifications were “junior engineers.” Black women mathematicians were called “colored computers.”

Still they operated under Jim Crow laws, including segregated bathrooms, working and eating areas, and Black workers had less chance for advancement than their White peers. The advent of the IBM computer was also breathing down their necks, threatening to make the human computers obsolete. None of these barriers, however, could eclipse Johnson’s genius. She was assigned to the Space Task Group, where she did the calculations for the trajectories, launch and landing of several historic space missions, including the Friendship 7, for which astronaut John Glenn specifically asked for “the girl” to verify the numbers before liftoff.

“This is a prime example of when opportunity meets preparation,” Henson says. “She went to school to be a teacher. Think about that. Then you don’t get the accolades [for her contributions at NASA] until you’re 98. Think about how deep that is.”
Portraying Johnson was important to Henson, not just because the story seemed too good to be true but because it gives Henson, 46, an opportunity to step away from her iconic Empire character, Cookie. “I’m a trained actress,” she states. “I can give you anything you want, baby. Just because I talk like I’m that girl from the ’hood does not mean I cannot give you Shakespeare in the Park or Chekhov. I studied the craft.”

Henson’s confidence notwithstanding, she admits to being intimidated by the math. To portray Johnson, she had to quickly learn and write out complicated calculations, and even installed a chalkboard in her house to practice. “I literally had to just go home, turn everything off, quiet myself and learn it. I crammed it. It scared me, but that’s when I knew I was in the right place.”

Like many girls of a certain age, Henson had been directed away from STEM-related careers. “When I was growing up, people told me out of their mouths math and science are for boys. I was told that over and over,” Henson says. “Like, no one showed me how to fall in love with numbers. If I had a teacher like Mrs. Katherine Johnson, wiio knows, I might be on the moon.” 

Here’s how ‘Hidden Figures came to be: In 2014, journalist Margot Lee Shetterly of Hampton, Virginia, wrote a 55- page book proposal about the Black women NASA mathematicians and engineers in her Tidewater community. The brief landed in the hands of Oscar- winning producer Donna Gigliotti (Silver Linings Playbook), who promptly bought the rights to the film before the book was written. (Hidden Figures, published by William Morrow, was released last fall.)

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