Watch Taraji P. Henson Play a NASA Mathematician in 'Hidden Figures'
"Yes they do let women do some things at NASA. And it's not because we wear skirts."
There's finally a film that puts women of color at the center of a story about STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures features actress Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a NASA team member whose job title was literally "computer."
Johnson worked on a team with Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe), responsible for NASA's Mercury and Apollo missions. The film goes behind the scenes of the 1962 spaceflight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. Hidden Figures is the first film to focus on the role that African American scientists played in the early 60s space race, NASA's most formative era.
Johnson, portrayed as a brilliant mathematician since childhood, was known most notably for calculating the travel course of Alan Shepard, the first American to venture into space. Johnson was also integral to Glenn's spaceflight: though Glenn's orbit was calculated by actual computers, he requested that Johnson, NASA's human computer, check the other computers' calculations.
The film also highlights the struggles women and African Americans faced in an environment and professional field dominated by white men. From being mistaken for a janitor to spending long periods of time away from her children, Johnson had to endure challenges unfamiliar to her male counterparts. "Yes they do let women do some things at NASA," says Johnson, "And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses."
And when a man asks Jackson if she would have wanted to be an engineer if she were a white male, she responds, with some sass: "I wouldn't have to. I'd already be one."
Johnson worked for NASA until 1986, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in last year. It's been a few decades, but we're excited to see Johnson get the credit she has always deserved.