Hidden Figures and The Hope for More Real Science Stories

There’s a whole world of science stories just waiting to be told.

Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures is a wonderful victory tale, both in the true story it depicts and in how it has, as a film about Black women in STEM, been so warmly received by audiences. A lot of attention has been given to the first half (that is, it being a film centered around three Black women), and rightly so. As a Black woman, I left the film with a proud smile only somewhat tempered by the wistful thought that I wished such a film had been around when I was a little girl. But today I want to shine a light on the second part – the part where Hidden Figures demonstrates that fact-based films revolving around STEM (short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) history can have mass appeal. More importantly, how Hidden Figures serves as a sort of blueprint as to exactly how STEM stories can also be financially viable crowd pleasers – because we, perhaps now more than ever, need these types of stories, and for all sorts of STEM disciplines. Space science encompasses the disciplines that have likely benefited most from film, just because it’s gotten the most attention, but other disciplines do have the potential, and could desperately use the “Hollywood treatment.”

While people throw around the term STEM a good deal, the fact of the matter is that the numerous disciplines encompassed do not necessarily sink or swim together, though they are all valuable. In recent years, the biopic treatment has been more or less exclusively limited to stories of mathematicians, physicists, and computer programers, with the occasional psychologist thrown in. While other disciplines such as chemistry and biology are now woefully ignored, it is not for lack of stories waiting to be told – something Hollywood used to recognize. The 1930s and 40s are referred to as Hollywood’s Golden Age, but they were also a time when major studios warmly embraced research scientist biopics, referred to by film historian Alberto Elena as “true forerunners of the genre in the United States.”

Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) searches for a cure for syphilis and smokes a cigar in “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940)

It seems silly that major studios now insist on churning out reboots and remakes that nobody asked for, and that rarely seem to succeed either critically or commercially, when STEM history has so many stories just waiting to be told. If we are so insistent on repeating ourselves, why not revitalize the scientist biopic genre? The genre was believed to have flourished in the 30s and 40s due to a desire to present the possibility of a national society united in support of science and education in a time of great political instability (sound familiar?).

Last week I wrote about monsters in film, and how sympathetic portrayals of monsters blow open, the concept of “people are frightened by what they don’t understand.” Well, in modern, everyday life, this quote is painfully applicable to a lot of things within STEM, especially biology. When I think of “people are frightened by what they don’t understand,” the first thing that pops into mind is vaccines. Vaccination used to be a widely supported public health issue – the March of Dimes was originally the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and funded the development and distribution of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine – but many today look upon vaccination as a danger in need of containment. A good deal of this, I believe, stems from a lack of both understanding and urgency, with the exception of smallpox, all diseases for which we have vaccines are still in existence, and therefore could potentially make a comeback.

So where does film come in?

In a New Yorker article, Richard Brody refers to Hidden Figures as a “subtle and powerful work of counter-history, or, rather, of a finally and long-deferred accurate history” that both depicts the important roles of Black women at NASA in the early 1960s and the “repugnant attitudes and practices of white supremacy that poisoned earlier generations’ achievements and that are inseparable from those achievements.” Cultural memory is a very powerful thing, and films – specifically Hollywood films – play a considerable role in shaping it. They say that looking at the past is the best way to anticipate what will happen in the future, but the “history” that actually shapes current attitudes and opinions is history as remembered, which can vary significantly from history as it actually was (thus, “Make America Great Again”). It could be argued that films and popular culture are responsible for a lot of the misremembrance of the past that fuels popular nostalgia, but by the same token films are similarly capable of counteracting the image of the rose-tinted world of yesteryear – a time of blatant racism, sexism, and a lot of diseases.

“Downton Abbey”: Unfortunately for Lavinia, Julian Fellowes actually paid attention in history class.

My favorite example of this medical history amnesia (and one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves) has to do with the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected an estimated 500 million people (somewhere between a third to a fourth of the global population) and killed an estimated 50 million. I only very recently discovered that that estimate included my great-grandfather; with those sorts of numbers, most of us wouldn’t have to branch too far out in our family tree to find someone afflicted. And yet, it has largely been forgotten.

I certainly saw war films growing up – films that took place in the year 1918 – and yet I didn’t know about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic until I saw a PBS documentary in middle school because most films and TV shows fail to acknowledge it even exists. The most noticeable exception would probably be Downton Abbey, where the 1918 pandemic conveniently serves to kill off the hypotenuse of a love triangle. But the thing is, for all films love to highlight the horrors of war and the needless loss of life involved, the flu pandemic killed more than the Great War – or the Bubonic Plague, or any other pandemic in recorded history. For many people living in the US, well away from any actual battlefields, the real horror wasn’t WWI, but what came right after.

While there is a film to be made there – disaster movie is a genre in itself, after all – that’s not the type of potential film I want to highlight. While the history of medicine is, by nature, one that involves death and suffering, it also features some tales of incredible success. The eradication of smallpox, I would argue, is one of our greatest achievements as a species, and yet it has never been featured in a film. The value of featuring science in films, as I have discussed before, goes well beyond matters of scientific accuracy. As Heather Berlin writes in a special science communication issue of Trends in Immunology:

“Incorporating scientific themes into films, whether accurately or otherwise, has the potential to open up new audiences to scientific ideas and inspire them to engage in a broader discussion of science itself, which is invaluable.”

Hidden Figures Needs to Be Taken Seriously as an Oscar Contender

One of the great things about Hidden Figures is that it’s the sort of film, with it’s PG rating and upbeat tone, that a little girl could go see and come out thinking “now that’s cool” or “hey, maybe I could do something like that.” We need more of these kinds of films. It’s not about indoctrinating kids into becoming scientists and mathematicians and engineers – just letting them know that those options are out there. In a peculiar sense it’s almost a Chicken-and-Egg question: do so many little girls want to be princesses and the like because they want to be, or because most of the female characters they are exposed to are princesses? I attribute a lot of my interest in microbiology and immunology to the PBS American Experience documentaries “The Polio Crusade” and “Influenza 1918,” and I know people pursuing STEM careers who reminisce fondly over childhood memories of watching movies like Apollo 13.

Last but not least, Hidden Figures exemplifies how a STEM story can also be so much more. It’s a story about racism and adversity and the many guises in which they present themselves. It’s also a film takes, as others have noted, the foundations of a traditional “genius” narrative but instead looks at the individual in the context of their community, which adds depth and differentiates it from the typical “lone genius” perspective. While what makes Hidden Figures successful cannot be exactly duplicated, it’s basic formula of “STEM genius narrative plus” is something that could easily be adapted. Hopefully, in light of Hidden Figures’ box office success, it just might be, and to a variety of STEM fields.