Speed Reads

uncommon denominators

This movie about black female mathematicians looks glorious

The preview for Hidden Figures, the movie about the black female mathematicians who sent astronauts to space, aired for the first time last night during the Rio Olympics, and it looks fantastic:

This is the story of "human computers" before androids, back when "computers" were women. Starring Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer, it's the period piece we've been waiting for.

Henson plays Katherine Johnson, the assertive mathematician who calculated Alan Shepard's trajectory when he became the first American in space — and the person John Glenn asked to personally double-check the new-fangled "electronic computer's" calculations before his flight on the Friendship 7. (NASA has a great profile on Johnson and you can see a terrific interview with her here.)

Hidden Figures also follows the careers of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) was a gifted mathematician who eventually became the head of the NACA (NASA’s predecessor) West Area Computing Unit, an all-black, all-female group of mathematicians that's crying out for its own TV series. Employees worked inhuman hours (24-hour shifts were common), and thanks to Jim Crow laws, they "were originally required to use separate dining and bathroom facilities," The Human Computer Project reports. "Over time, both individually and as a group, the West Computers distinguished themselves with contributions to virtually every area of research at Langley."

Monae plays Mary Jackson, a brilliant engineer who started off at NACA analyzing data from wind tunnels and aircraft trajectories. She was the first woman to become an engineer at NACA, then the first woman to become an aerospace engineer, and then — once she'd maxed out on professional advancement — the first woman to take a demotion and pay cut in order to become an administrator in charge of helping women and minorities advance in a system that seemed stacked against them.

Also starring Kevin Costner and Glen Powell, Hidden Figures premieres Jan. 13, 2017.