I know STEM is all the rage right now, but Hidden Figures, which was released this weekend, is proof positive of why the humanities and life story writing is vital. If we have a bunch of scientists without any humanity we’ll all be in trouble. And if we don’t record our stories who will know about them? How will we inspire? The title alone indicates that this is a story of three leading African-American mathematicians and scientists at NASA who most of us didn’t know about. Imagine the young girls who will be galvanized into action after seeing the movie or reading the book. Those who may have been thinking it’s uncool to be smart or who thought careers in engineering, math and the sciences are unattainable just got a little more incentive.
Like the book, the movie places the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement on the periphery. However, the director, Theodore Melfi, magnifies basic needs that were going unmet and were considered privileges at the time. Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Hensen, has to stop work and run a mile and a half each way just to relieve herself because there are no “colored” bathrooms in her building. The right to have a facility to pee at your place of employment, the right to go into the library to get a book for your children, and the right to take a night class to better your education are all situations the women in Hidden Figures face on a daily basis just to do their jobs. And as many of these things have changed, Melfi also reminds us that some remain the same. In the very opening scene, the police approach all three women after their car breaks down on the way to work. We get the sense that they are in a potentially dangerous situation because they are black and stuck on the side of the road. The audacity.
The bulk of the movie, however, focuses on the work of the women; not on their love interests, not on their children, nor on societal pressures, but on their dedication to their passions and convictions, even in the face of institutionalized racism. It’s inspiring to say the least. It’s a film that makes you feel as though any dream you want to attain is possible and it highlights the fact that our most basic human right is to pursue our dreams. Hidden Figures also emphasizes that even when we think we are moving forward in the sciences in an “objective” manner, we may need to check our biases. Humanity and the sciences must go hand-in-hand if we are to continue forward movements in compassion, consideration, and understanding. Hidden Figures delivers on those great virtues and calls attention to the all-important power of telling our stories.