In a market dominated by comic book adaptations and franchise movies, the story of how three relatively little-known mathematicians contributed to the NASA space program may not sound like typical blockbuster fare. However, the 20th Century Fox release Hidden Figures has quietly become one of the biggest cinema hits of the year so far, out-grossing heavily promoted movies such as Passengers and Hacksaw Ridge, while also picking up a slew of awards and three Oscar nominations. The film tells the true story of three african american mathematicians - Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, who calculated flight trajectories for key NASA missions including Project Mercury.
However, the real success story of the movie may be its role in inspiring young people - particularly girls and african americans - to embrace STEM subjects. Numerous schools and STEM clubs have already started hosting special screenings of the film for their students, and are reporting highly positive feedback. Over 2,000 young women had the opportunity to see the film thanks to screenings organised by the initiative Girls Build LA, while up and down America schools and universities are organising class trips for their students, a rare opportunity to show a positive portrayal of STEM careers via a hit mainstream movie.
Jennifer R.Cohen, director of the free Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkley (SMASH), another nonprofit that has been hosting screenings of the film, described it as an inspiring story of national pride for many black women.
"They were saying we didn't even know this was a part of history and a part of space exploration" she told the East Bay Times in an interview. "This film... really reprograms what it looks like to be STEM."
20-year old engineering student Maya Thompson from Stanford University also told the Times that watching the film was a cathartic experience.
"It was powerful and emotional... the craziest thing was how this was all new to us. It was powerful to see the shoulders we stand on."
According to Devin Houston, a University mentor at Jackson State University, young women aren't the only demographic responding positively to the film. He recently took more than thirty middle school boys to see the project as part of a University project funded by the Verizon Foundation. "I didn't think it would grab them" he said. "But it did. We talked about what they would take away."
The cast of the movie has also embraced the education community in promoting the film, attending STEM and STEAM panels across the United States. Several cast members have publically lent their support to Image of Stem, an Obama-era White House initiative that seeks to expand STEM education to students from all backgrounds.
Studies have shown that black women account for just 3 per cent of bachelor degrees received in computer science, with women and minorities significantly underrepresented in general across STEM careers and higher education courses.
Dr Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University described the movie as 'inspirational', and claimed to have personally paid for several young people to see the movie. "I'm celebrating the movie, but dismayed and disappointed that it took fifty years for the world to know the story", she told the educational website Diverse. "It would have been an inspiration to me."