Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of Female African American Mathematicians in the 1960s Space Race Continues to Inspire Girls and Women Around the World Today
Since its December 2016 release, Twentieth Century Fox’s Hidden Figures has become a global phenomenon. The film tells the 'untold' story of three African American female NASA mathematicians during the Space Race of the 1960's, with Taraji P. Henson starring as Katherine Johnson, who calculated astronaut John Glenn’s flight trajectories for Project Mercury, Octavia Spencer as NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as NASA engineer Mary Jackson. The film, which was based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s biographical book, also features Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, and Mahershala Ali in supporting roles.
Hidden Figures continues to inspire audiences across the country, having crossed $230 million in global box office receipts alongside a successful home entertainment release. The Academy Award-nominated film has won awards from the NAACP and Screen Actors Guild, and 21st Century Fox’s social impact work around the film earned Shorty Award prizes in “Best Multicultural Community Engagement” and “Best Content and Promotion”, as well as a Humanitas Prize for outstanding social messaging.
Hidden Figures has been particularly impactful in encouraging young women, and especially women of color, to pursue studies and careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Soon after the film’s release, grassroots movements emerged across the U.S. and around the world to send students from underserved communities to see the film. "I believe seeing this movie will give us girls the inspiration we need to say, I can be a mathematician, an engineer or better yet, an astronaut,” said Taylor Richardson, a 7th grade student from Florida who wants to be an astronaut herself and set up one of many GoFundMe pages to crowdfund free screenings for young girls.
To celebrate and build upon the groundswell of enthusiasm around the film, 21CF businesses developed engagement efforts to bring the film to audiences that might not otherwise have been able to see it, and to empower girls and young women to believe in their own abilities and pursue STEM fields.
“Search for Hidden Figures” Scholarship Contest
In November 2016, 21CF and PepsiCo, in partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), launched “The Search for Hidden Figures”, a scholarship contest for young women with visions for improving the world through their studies and careers in STEM. The contest asked students and professionals to submit essay and video submissions that reflected on the importance of STEM to themselves and the world around them. “The Search for Hidden Figures” received nearly 8,000 applications, with 10 runners up and 2 grand prize winners chosen by a panel of judges that included Hidden Figures producers Pharrell Williams and Donna Gigliotti and NYAS President Ellis Rubinstein. More than $200,000 in scholarships and prizes were awarded by 21CF and PepsiCo.
White House Celebration
In December 2016, former First Lady Michelle Obama invited middle and high school students from Washington D.C. schools to the White House for a private advance screening followed by a panel with the cast, including Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, and author Margot Lee Shetterly to celebrate the contributions that the women of Hidden Figures and many other African Americans have made to STEM fields.
“What we saw in this film is that when we pull together men and women, people of every background and color and faith, immigrants who have come across the globe to make America their home, when we bring all of that brainpower to the table, anything is possible,” Obama said.
Paley Center Panel
In December 2016, in partnership with the Paley Center for Media, 21CF hosted a free advance screening for 200 high school students followed by a moderated discussion panel with the cast and crew of Hidden Figures and female leaders in STEM fields, including Dr. Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist and Nat Geo Emerging Explorer. After the screening, each student also received a free copy of Shetterly’s book, courtesy of HarperCollins.
"I think what's so amazing about this film is the way it portrays a love and a passion for math specifically. Unfortunately, we have a culture that makes it seem like it's ok for you to just opt out of becoming good at math because it's 'just not your thing...' I hope because of this story, we'll start to see change in this area,” said Dr. Knatokie Ford, former Senior Advisor at the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy during the panel.
10,000 girls at LA Promise Fund Screening
Nearly 10,000 young women from middle and high schools across LA gathered at the University of Southern California for an exclusive screening in January 2017. Organized by the LA Promise Fund as part of its Girls Build LA initiative, the full-day event of speakers and presentations challenged young women to use STEM to create the social change they want to see in LA.
“When I first heard what the story was about, which is three African American women who help get our first man into space, I thought it was fiction,” said Octavia Spencer during a Q&A with the cast. “When I realized they were real women who made real contributions, which we are still feeling the effects of today, I wanted to be a part of telling their stories so that we will never have people not getting the recognition that they so richly deserve… You are the master of your fate. Remember that.”
Free Screening Series Honoring Black History Month
In celebration of February’s Black History Month, 21CF and AMC Theatres joined forces to provide free screenings of Hidden Figures in communities across the U.S. These screenings were held in Atlanta, Baltimore, the Bronx, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, LA, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Oakland, St. Louis, Miami, and Washington D.C., and were open to the public free of charge.
“As we celebrate Black History Month and look ahead to Women’s History Month in March, this story of empowerment and perseverance is more relevant than ever. We at 21CF were inspired by the grassroots movement to bring this film to audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be able to see it – audiences that might include future innovators and barrier-breakers – and we wanted to support and extend that movement,” said Liba Rubenstein, 21st Century Fox’s Senior Vice President of Social Impact.
Community Non-Profits Screening Contest
Continuing from Black History Month to March’s Women’s History Month, 21CF and AMC Theatres expanded their partnership and invited local organizations and non-profits to apply for free special screenings of Hidden Figures. Over 7,000 groups applied, resulting in approximately 3,500 free tickets distributed across the country. The winning groups represented a variety of organizations and missions, from Girl Scout Clubs to college STEM initiatives to healthcare facilities.
“It was very historical and I enjoyed it. I learned a lot about my history and how Black women were a huge help to astronauts and got them into space. Even while fighting racism, they still managed to be great women for the country. They showed we shouldn’t be divided based on gender or race,” said Tikyah McLeod, an 11th grade student from Miami, FL.
Free Educational Materials
At the March 2017 SXSWedu Conference & Festival in Austin, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment launched their partnership with nonprofit Journeys in Film and released a free Hidden Figures curriculum guide for the classroom. The guide is made up of eight comprehensive, standards-aligned lesson plans for middle school-aged students, and is interdisciplinary, offering various lenses through which students can approach the social issues raised by the film.
“The first few lessons in this guide will help students understand the context in which the events of Hidden Figures occur. In the spirit of Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughn’s creative determination, Journeys in Film’s lessons trace the increasing animosity between Communist nations and the West, the pressure-filled context in which the women at Langley were working, the logistics of the U.S. space effort and the vital role served by the ‘human computers’ portrayed in the film. Students will also research the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in the timeline of key events during the Civil Rights Movement, which provide a deeper understanding of the actions activists and ordinary citizens undertook to end segregation,” said Journeys in Film.
Through meaningful partnerships and community-driven engagement, 21CF and its partners have made the amazing story behind Hidden Figures available to many who would not have had the opportunity before.
I would like to say thank you for giving us the opportunity to get free tickets to watch a movie that empowered us…. I’m glad your team gave us the opportunity to watch a movie that moved me as a young woman, and all of us as young people who often lack access to opportunities. Personally, I could relate to all the women in the movie because I want to be a probation officer, and I constantly get told that I may not be able to perform the job because I’m a woman or I’m not strong enough. I related to and enjoyed seeing the story of Mary Jackson, who was told she couldn’t be an engineer, but she persevered and did it anyway. Hidden Figures exposed all of us to the fact that we are capable of being the first at something, even if it is something small.
- Desiree Delgadillo, CCEO YouthBuild member
Research predicts that there will be 2.4 million available jobs in STEM fields by 2018, and with the help of galvanizing stories like Hidden Figures, undoubtedly many of these jobs will be filled by talented young women. Two such promising leaders include the winners of 21CF and PepsiCo’s “The Search for Hidden Figures” contest:
- Yuna Shin (winner in the ‘13 to 19’ age category) illustrated how STEM excites her imagination, and plans to study abnormal brain waves that could help prevent seizures for those facing epilepsy.
- Joy Buolamwini (winner in the ‘20 and above’ age category) outlined a project to develop tools that can help identify and mitigate algorithmic bias that can often lead to discriminatory practices and behaviors in society.
In addition to their $50,000 scholarships, Shin and Buolamwini will travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida, to continue their STEM education through training from NYAS.
At the core of every screening, panel, and program is 21CF’s belief in the power of storytelling to inspire future generations to dream bigger, and Hidden Figures has given young women across the country, and world, the encouragement to pursue those dreams.