Mathematicians and movies have long been strange bedfellows. Math is complicated, internal and not easily expressed visually. At the same time, those amazing humans who can see deeply into mathematical worlds off-limits to the rest of us can be utterly fascinating. Hidden Figures focuses on the lives of NASA’s African-American women as they struggle to solve brain-twisting problems while also breaking down barriers – but it was also essential to get the numbers that meant so much to them right. After all, just one degree off in their equations could have meant unthinkable tragedy for NASA.
To oversee the film’s mathematical equations and to prepare the cast for how mathematicians think, the filmmakers brought in consultant Rudy L. Horne, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the historically black Morehouse College. Horne teaches a variety of courses at Morehouse College but his specialty is applied math, the branch that looks to solve problems in the real world.
Horne was taken by surprise at the invitation to join the production. “I never could have imagined consulting for a movie,” he laughs, noting that it’s not a common position for mathematicians. “But it’s been a lot of fun, and I even learned some new math out of it.”
Taraji Henson spent a lot of time studying with Horne and trying to wrap her mind around challenging numerical concepts and even solve equations. Though Henson once thought she wanted to be an engineer, she never had done anything like this before – and she had to confront and get past that fear of math. “It was difficult,” she confesses. “But I also felt there are people who will watch this film who have made math their life and I better get it right. It was so hard, I wanted to cry some nights. But I had to do it because I am one of those people in the audience who would be unhappy if the math is wrong!”
The anxiety Henson felt about Horne’s homework ultimately turned into the joy of mastery – something Henson thinks too many people never experience with math. “At first it brought back all these traumatic memories of getting a big fat F in pre-calculus,” she laughs. “And when I first started doing these equations my heart would palpitate and I would sweat and worry I would be a failure. So I had to leap some personal hurdles for this role. But what happened is that I proved to myself I could start to at least memorize these numbers and equations very well, and understand some of it.”
Producer Pharrell Williams hopes the film’s energetic take on math’s beauty, importance and ability to create exciting things will encourage more women and minorities to take the leap into a field they may not have considered. To him, it is just as awesome as becoming a singer, actor or filmmaker.
“The idea of STEM is very important to this film,” says Williams. “I consider math to be a real art and it’s also a universal language. It doesn't even matter what solar system you're in, math applies.”