If you’re going to the movies on a Friday night and have to choose between a historical film about female mathematicians or a thrilling action movie about a former CIA agent, which one would you select?
Surprisingly, more and more people are choosing the movie about mathematicians. Despite being a historical film without all the flash and excitement of fancy action movies, Hidden Figures has domestically earned more than action movies from the past year such as X-Men: Apocalypse and Jason Bourne. And it had a much lower budget; Hidden Figures cost twenty-five million dollars to make compared to the one-hundred seventy-eight million dollars it took to make X-Men: Apocalypse.
If you haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet (run, don’t walk to do so!), it’s an excellent biographical movie about three African-American women working as mathematicians for NASA during the Space Race in the 1960’s. It follows their struggles both as women and African-Americans at work (one of the women has to run across the NASA campus to another building to use the bathroom because there aren’t bathrooms for colored people in her building) and at home (one of the women’s husbands is initially against her pursuing an engineering degree) as they break through the glass ceiling and break down race barriers. It’s an inspiring movie on many levels.
So how did Hidden Figures do so well without a large budget or the usual enticements of an action movie?
I don’t claim to know the particular formula for the movie’s success; perhaps people wanted a break from the typical Hollywood movies, but I find that after a year of #OscarsSoWhite and constant headlines about racism (some dishearteningly true but others not), it’s encouraging that so many Americans went to see a movie about African Americans during the Civil Rights era. While there are certainly terrible people in this country, most Americans are not as racist as the (heavily liberal) media likes to claim.
The movie also showed the struggle of being a woman during that time period, with the women’s own suitors and husbands sometimes unintentionally questioning the women’s intelligence and drive. The women, of course, keep doing their work, despite being second-guessed or deliberately put down. Their grit and determination and refusal to play the victim makes them precisely the kind of role models that girls today need (as opposed to vapid reality television stars or angry feminist members of the #resistance).
Not only did the women in Hidden Figures succeed in a male-dominated workplace, but they were also working in what we now call STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Even today, only about twenty-five percent of people with STEM jobs are women. And unlike many celebrities and feminist role models today, the women in Hidden Figures actually kept their own figures hidden; they didn’t strip down for attention or to advance their careers. Instead, they proved themselves smart, hard workers, and they didn’t stop working until they got the promotions they deserved. More women and young girls could use a dose of such hard working women from history as role models instead of the half-naked celebrities making headlines today.
It’s encouraging to see Hidden Figures do well at the box office; but it’s even more encouraging that a movie about minority women fighting and making their mark in this world has found an eager audience. At a time when the culture’s focus is on how much is wrong with our country, it’s nice to have a reminder (from Hollywood, no less) of some of the things we’ve done right.