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Black, Female NASA Engineer? Nope, Nothing Interesting Here

By Brian Richards and Emily Chambers | Videos | August 16, 2016 |

By Brian Richards and Emily Chambers | Videos | August 16, 2016 |

I know we dedicate a lot of digital ink around these parts to diversity in Hollywood, but maybe we’re being too tough on filmmakers. Think about it. How are they supposed to know that audiences actually will be willing to watch a movie if most of the characters aren’t white? And what if those long held beliefs about how men really won’t go see a movie with a female lead turn out to be true? I mean, sure, you could point out all of the studies and successful yet diverse franchises and just real life things that actually happen to prove those beliefs aren’t true. But what if they still are, man? Are you willing to risk not putting Chris Hemsworth in another movie? What if this one is finally his movie?

But aside from the fact that we’re not 100 percent completely sure that we can risk not having a mostly white, mostly male cast, there’s also that small issue of there just not being any stories about non-white, non-male people. All of the best stories are about and told by white men. It’s just the way that history has always done things. You can’t expect Hollywood to seek out stories about not-white guys in addition to taking the risk of putting not-white guys in their movie.


On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, when he flew aboard the Friendship 7 during the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. And he was largely able to do that thanks to the hard work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three mathematicians who used their knowledge to help Glenn break records in space travel, as well as help NASA stay one step ahead of the Soviet Union in the Space Race.

What made the accomplishments of Mmes. Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson even more impressive and amazing is that all three of them were African-American, and they did this during a time when African-American women had little to no rights, let alone the right to let their voices be heard in adding their contributions to NASA’s attempts at space travel. So this can and should definitely be considered one of the earliest and greatest examples of #BlackWomenDidThat (and if you haven’t already clicked on that hashtag to read the many examples of what Black women have accomplished, feel free to do so).

This was documented in Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, and it’s now been adapted into a film starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson.

See? Nothing interesting or inspirational here. And even if there were, you can’t expect screenwriters, producers, and directors to go to the trouble of finding these stories. We had to both Google a name and read a Wikipedia entry before I was familiar with Kathryn Johnson. Yeah, way better that we just find another goddamn biopic to put Miles Teller in.

Hidden Figures opens in theaters January 13, 2017.

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Brian Richards is a Staff Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.