By Kerry Torpey `19
In front of a room of Hollywood elites and over 32 million viewers worldwide, 98-year-old Katherine Johnson took center stage. Almost immediately, the crowd rose to give her a standing ovation. Called “an American hero,” the former NASA mathematician was being recognized for work she had done about 60 years ago. Why the delay? Because Johnson only recently has there been a concentrated effort to acknowledge black women in Hollywood.
Following last year’s heavily scrutinized Oscars, Hollywood has been working to diversify its productions and recognize those who have long been overlooked. In this effort, films like Hidden Figures have emerged, exposing the talent of historical figures and those that portray them. The film’s positive reception highlights the immense amount of success women of color can attain if given the chance, both in Hollywood and elsewhere.
Hidden Figures is based on the 2016 novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, telling the story of three black women in their vital roles as mathematicians in NASA during the Space Race. Co-written by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi, the film received three Oscar nominations and two Golden Globe nominations. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards the cast won the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.
The film has an all-star cast, led by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Johnson, played by Henson, was the first black woman to aid the Space Task Groupe as she worked as “a human computer” for engineers at NASA. Alongside Vaughan (Spencer) and Jackson (Monáe), these women played integral rolls as mathematicians and engineers for NASA.
The monumental success of Hidden Figures highlights what many people of color in Hollywood frequently spotlight: opportunity.
In 2015, Viola Davis, black actress and 2017 Oscar winner, won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role in How to Get Away With Murder. During her speech, Davis explained, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity…You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
A lack of roles for women that have depth and idiosyncrasy is what frustrates so many black actors.
Donald Bogle, a film professor at New York University, says, “Roles that show black women as maids, nannies, or sidekicks for the mainstream world continue to reduce black women to support systems and to only being there to service the needs of others. It’s a disturbing trend to see keep repeating itself year after year.”
Bogle recognizes that studios have a responsibility to diversify Hollywood as he asks, “Isn’t that what Hollywood is supposed to be about?’’
Lenika Cruz of The Atlantic feels that, “Certainly, Hollywood will be a better industry when there are more films about the egos and personal demons and grand triumphs of black women who helped to change the world.”
When Allison Schroeder was asked about the impact of the film, she emphasized hope. She feels that it has “given a lot of inspiration to little girls and little boys.” She resonates with the struggle and feels that the film celebrates “people putting their heart and soul into something despite the odds against them.”
Especially considering the lack of diversity during the 2016 Oscars season, the acclaim received by Hidden Figures demonstrates the importance of telling diverse and powerful stories in Hollywood.