“It’s an all-American story,” Margot Lee Shetterly tells me. She’s talking about the life of Katherine Johnson, a pioneering African-American mathematician working at NASA in the 1960s. “This is the best of America. NASA reached down and found the most amazing and talented people regardless of background." A remarkable feat, sadly even in 2017. Johnson was groundbreaking in her work – the brains behind one of the greatest NASA operations in history – yet you might not even know her name. Because Johnson’s story, along with many other women working at NASA at the time, was kept secret and hidden from view. Until now.
Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, tells the true story of how African-American female mathematicians and scientists worked at NASA and played a critical role in America’s space race, while battling sexism and racism during the Civil Rights era. The book highlights the invaluable contribution Katherine Johnson made by calculating the precise equations and trajectories that allowed America to achieve its most iconic space missions. The remarkable story caught the attention of Hollywood’s elite and is now being brought to life on the big screen, starring Empire’s Taraji P Henson and The Help’s Octavia Spencer.
“Johnson, these women, these African-American women, went to work every day at NASA and did groundbreaking jobs,” explains Shetterly. “I think, in the case of these women specifically, it was kept a secret, similar to the women of Bletchley Park. People didn’t talk about the work taking place at NASA, as there was a fear that spies would be listening.”
Yet, Shetterly doesn’t just believe that the paranoia of the United States was the only reason why the work of African-American women did for NASA went unmentioned.
“The women working at NASA weren’t valued highly," she says. "Katherine Johnson carried out work that was women’s work. And what I mean by women’s work is that she was a mathematician and the work of engineers was respected more. Men were usually engineers and they were paid more and had their name on the research reports.”
While Shetterly deserves every inch of praise for bringing the stories of these black women to the world stage, I feel there is something unfortunately familiar about Hidden Figures. It is another example where the contributions of black pioneers – black female pioneers – have been erased from the history books. When I ask Shetterly about the erasure of the black community and their contribution to society, she doesn’t quite feel the same way.
“I think words matter and I don’t think the stories of these women were erased. I grew up in Hampton, Virginia, the home of NASA. I know Katherine; I knew these women,” she explains.
Watching three black women on screen in professional jobs is refreshing and, finally, a familiar reflection of the real life most black women know and live
“I think these women were hidden and, perhaps more accurately, they were unseen.”
Shetterly’s childhood of growing up virtually down the road from NASA gave her a unique view on science, as she states in her book, “the face of science was brown like mine” – something that probably doesn’t ring true for many people today.
“The first scientist I ever knew was black – it was my dad. He worked at NASA, as did many of his friends. I used to go to work with my dad as a child and I would see a lot of these black women who were working at NASA.
“NASA was a really big part of my life,” she chuckles with fondness.
“NASA would have Christmas parties for their employees and their families, so I’d visit Santa Claus at the NASA Christmas parties.
“I remember visiting NASA and seeing the wind tunnels and the 100ft-high silver spheres. It was another world, but it was normal to me.”
However, it was Margot’s husband’s astonishment at the influence and contribution African Americans made to the American space programme that pushed her to write the book.
“My husband is from Maine and, one day, my dad was retelling the story about some of the black women he worked with and my husband could not believe it,” she explains.
“He could not believe that so many black women, including the great Katherine Johnson, were instrumental at NASA and that he had never heard of her or any of the women.
“That was really the moment that these people I knew became the story I needed to tell.”
While Margot’s childhood years have been shaped by the space city of Hampton, she spent her adult years working on Wall Street and later became an entrepreneur. So, years after leaving her childhood home behind, taking on the monumental feat of writing about the women she had admired throughout her younger years came with an immense amount of pressure.
“I feel a tremendous responsibility as a black woman, who is close to these stories, to tell this. I’m a writer, who is writing her first book, so I felt even more pressure. Then I felt a sense of responsibility with the filmmakers,” Margot adds.
“The producers hired me as a consultant on the film, so I did work with the screenwriter when she was writing it. I didn’t always have control because, ultimately, film is a different medium and it’s ultimately someone else’s vision for the story.”
The film has been a critical and commercial success. Octavia Spencer has scored a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Academy Awards and the movie has hit the number-one spot at the American box office. Fans and film writers alike have showered the movie with praise and I was keen to see if Margot felt the same way.
“I have seen the film. I’ve seen it twice and I loved it!” she exclaims.
However, Margot’s voice becomes a little choked up when she explains how Katherine Johnson felt after watching the film at a private screening for the families of NASA: "Katherine Johnson loved it, so that is the highest praise you can receive.”
Hidden Figures is an important story and not just because it creates a more complete picture of history. Unlike other popular films with black female leads, it helps to broaden how black women are represented on screen. For so long, black actresses have only earned praise in stereotypical roles, such slaves, maids and prostitutes. Watching three black women on screen in professional jobs is refreshing and, finally, a familiar reflection of the real life most black women know and live.
In a world where Donald Trump exists as the most powerful man in the world, an accomplishment he achieved through racism, sexism and xenophobia, it seems more important than ever to have diverse stories to read and watch – something Margot agrees with.
“I think this an important story right now, as it serves as a model for America to look into our souls,” she says. “And to see what it really means to be an American.”
Hidden Figures is released in UK cinemas on Friday