It’s not every year that math takes center stage at the Oscars. But this Sunday, algorithms and algebra will take their place among the gowns and glamour thanks to the inspiring film Hidden Figures, the true record of black women who played key roles at NASA’s Langley, VA campus during the Space Race of the 1960s.
Hidden Figures is nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. The movie was nominated for two Golden Globes and won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, and the cast of the movie has Southern connections, too: Octavia Spencer is from Montgomery, AL, Jim Parsons is a Houston, TX native, and producer Pharrell Williams has referenced the story’s taking place in his native Virginia as one of the aspects that drew him to the project.
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The women profiled in Hidden Figures didn’t seek fame, but they’re getting it anyway. Standing behind a dusty chalkboard, it might have been hard for Katherine Johnson to imagine that, one day, Taraji P. Henson would be giving red-carpet interviews about Johnson’s impact as a mathematician. When Dorothy Vaughan was running one of the first IBM computers (with punch cards, no less), she couldn’t have dreamed that Octavia Spencer would be nominated for Best Supporting Actress for bringing her story to life. And when Mary Jackson walked into an all-white classroom to earn her engineering degree, chances are she didn’t think Janelle Monáe, a singer from Kansas City, would one day watch the Academy Awards as part of an ensemble nomination for Best Picture.
The women in Hidden Figures changed the course of history even though they faced obstacle after obstacle. Because they were women, because they were black, because they were denied credentials and education and encouragement, they had every reason in the world to stop trying. Instead, they chose to rise up in every circumstance. They chose to fight for their families, for their country and for the right to be true to their talents. In Hidden Figures, their stories are finally recognized—for that, and for the positive changes that have happened because of their contributions, we celebrate. Civil Rights progress is the real prize; but if Hidden Figures wins an Oscar or two (or three!) on Sunday, those golden trophies will be sweet icing on the cake.