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PBS will air a new documentary about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, America’s first female cryptanalyst, whose dramatic behind-the-scenes story is reminiscent of “Hidden Figures.” (Credit: WGBH; source imagery from the George C Marshall Foundation)

A new film that debuts this week sounds like a classic spy thriller: It’s about a person whose revolutionary intelligence work could “send infamous gangsters to prison … and bring down a massive, near-invisible Nazi spy ring in World War II.”

But it’s not fiction. And it’s not about a man.

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Rather, it’s a PBS documentary about Elizebeth Smith Friedman, America’s first female cryptanalyst, whose dramatic behind-the-scenes story is reminiscent of “Hidden Figures,” the award-winning film about a team of Black women who worked for NASA. As someone who broke down encrypted messages, Friedman played an integral role in America’s national security for decades, yet her story has largely gone untold. 

For example, by intercepting and breaking down messages transmitted between spies for the Axis of Evil, Friedman and her team saved thousands of soldiers’ lives, while also cutting off attempted Nazi coups in South America. But her name never made it into any history books — in large part because former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover took credit for her work and buried her accomplishments under red tape. 

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In 2008, the files revealing her efforts were declassified, bringing Friedman’s name and work out of the shadows. The newfound recognition also shined a light on all that she accomplished before World War II — largely breaking down international smuggling and drug-running rings during the Prohibition era by cracking smugglers’ carefully coded messages to one another.

“Her contributions to the field of cryptology laid the groundwork for modern codebreaking,” says producer Hilary Steinman. (Steinman also served as a producer on “Death by Design,” a film by Ambrica Productions, which produces The Story Exchange.) “Elizebeth is finally getting the recognition she so rightly earned and deserves.”

Now, her story will be told in full, on television. Produced by a female filmmaking duo consisting of Steinman and Chana Gazit, the documentary will debut on Monday, January 11 at 9 p.m. EST.

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