Hidden Figures is a new movie that’s coming out next year, telling the story of some pretty awesome mathematicians and physicists! With the popular Turing film The Imitation Game in 2014, and the independent Ramanujan film The Man Who Knew Infinity in 2015, it seems like films about mathematicians continue to spark people’s interest.
Stand and Deliver (1988) might be one of the first popular math movies that was not purely educational. Since then, Hollywood has given us Academy Award winners Good Will Hunting (1997) and A Beautiful Mind (2001), and several others such as 21 (2008). But while the other movies may have been great, in terms of cinematography, what Stand and Deliver did for math more than all of the others was bring the mathematician down to earth — show the public a glimpse of the mind and life of a math teacher and his students, and plant the idea that math was for more than just “unapproachable geniuses”. The films following Stand and Deliver tended to be portraits of these geniuses, who while being important to mathematics, but exasperated the stereotype of the otherworldly mathematician. This is why I am excited about Hidden Figures. The trailer seems to also to showcase mathematicians as people, not gods.
The protagonist of the film is Katherine Johnson, who worked at NASA and computed trajectories for the Apollo 11 space mission. In 2015 she received the Presidential Medal of Honor for her lifetime achievements. The film was originally a book of the same title, written by Margot Lee Shetterly. This article in the NY Times gives a nice summary of the topic, along with comments from Johnson, Christine Darden (another NASA researcher, portrayed in the book), and Shetterly.