The film Hidden Figures has recently taken the United States by storm, garnering critical acclaim and soaring to the top of the US box office. Released on December 25, 2016, the biographical drama tells the inspiring true story of three African American women whose contributions to NASA research helped to develop the foundation for the United States space program. Referred to as “human computers,” these dedicated mathematicians pushed the boundaries of race, gender, and science, and they helped to shape the very fabric of American history. Now, a group of prominent business leaders and organizations are working to bring their inspiring story to a wider audience, while at the same time empowering young students to push their limits and follow their dreams.
Infor chairman and CEO Charles Phillips, American Express Chairman and CEO Ken Chenault, and a number of other prominent figures from the African-American business community have partnered with leading firms including Google, Facebook, 20th Century Fox, and AT&T to take more than 25,000 New York City students to the movies. With the help of the New York Public Library, the initiative will involve the distribution of tickets granting free admission to Hidden Figures to schools and youth-focused organizations across the city. As of January 6, 2017, the New York Public School System had already reserved some 10,000 tickets, with other participating groups including Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, Harlem Children’s Zone, De La Salle Academy, and the Knowledge is Power Program.
A New Tradition
This isn’t the first time that the business world has come together to introduce American students to an inspiring story of historical and modern significance. In 2015, a similar initiative provided free tickets for students to see the movie Selma, which chronicles Dr. Martin Luther King’s symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, at the height of his tumultuous campaign for equal voting rights. Business leaders’ efforts to bring this film to students in 28 cities across the country inspired additional screenings at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, among other historic locations, as well as school lesson plans inspired by the film.
With any luck, Hidden Figures will enjoy the same viewership among students across the country. By providing free screenings to youth throughout New York City, the business leaders behind the initiative hope to inspire other communities to shine a light on this story of integrity, equality, and the power of determination.
The story at the heart of Hidden Figures begins during World War II, when the American aeronautics sector sought to fill a labor shortage by hiring black female mathematicians. Although they operated within the constraints of segregation, these engineers would later work at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, where they would provide the United States with a vital edge during the Space Race of the 1960s.
Directed by Theodore Melfi and reimagined for the big screen by Melfi and Allison Schroeder, Hidden Figures is an adaptation of the number-one New York Times bestseller of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The story centers on the lives of three brilliant NASA employees—Katherine G. Johnson (portrayed in the film by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe)—who help to change American history in more ways than one.
All three women were uniquely qualified and accomplished. While working in the segregated West Area Computing unit of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Dorothy Vaughan advanced to become one of the organization’s first female supervisors and its first-ever black manager. She later made significant contributions to NASA’s Analysis and Computation Division. Katherine G. Johnson worked on projects ranging from the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing to the inaugural space shuttle launch, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and Mary Jackson rose from West Area Computing to become NASA’s first black female engineer, conducting experiments within the agency’s state-of-the-art wind tunnel. However, the three shared one achievement in common: all played a vital role in facilitating John Glenn’s historic launch into orbit. It is this groundbreaking accomplishment that is the basis for Hidden Figures.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Hidden Figures features themes that remain deeply relevant today. As noted by
Dr. Linda Curtis-Bey, Executive Director of STEM for New York City Public Schools, the film “provides an important platform from which teachers and students, especially girls, can engage in discussions about STEM, the role of women in the workplace and the contributions of African-Americans.” With this in mind, Google has announced an initiative that will combine screenings of Hidden Figures with real-world scientific exploration. Working in partnership with local school districts and AMC theatres, the tech firm will host joint viewing parties and coding workshops that offer students the opportunity to watch the film, discuss its significance, and receive an introduction to basic coding.
Google has launched yet another initiative aimed at inspiring the next generation to explore STEM fields. Coinciding with the distribution of free tickets to Hidden Figures, the company has released Made with Code, an online platform that allows students to create interactive multimedia projects reflecting the key topics and themes of the film.