You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Octavia Spencer Joins Taraji P. Henson in Film Based on Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Worked for NASA During the Space Race

Octavia Spencer Joins Taraji P. Henson in Film Based on Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Worked for NASA During the Space Race

Well, thus far, the list of names of actresses who were initially reportedly being eyed by the film’s producer, for starring roles in the film, continues to plays out accordingly. At the time of the first announcement that the project was in the works, Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson were all said to be on the producer’s short list of actresses that were being considered. A week ago, the studio backing the film (Fox) confirmed that Ms. Henson was the first to be cast to headline the drama.

Today, another name on that early list has joined Henson in the film: Octavia Spencer.

Both Henson and Spencer will star in Fox’s adaptation of author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures,” which hasn’t actually been published yet (but will be this year via HarperCollins). It was optioned for Ted Melfi to direct (he’s the director of 2014’s acclaimed dramedy “St. Vincent,” which starred Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, and Naomi Watts. Terrence Howard played a supporting role in the film, which was Melfi’s feature directorial debut).

Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” tells the untold true story of the African American women mathematicians – Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley – who worked at NASA during the Civil Rights era. The book tells their story through the personal accounts of 4 specific women that then-NASA staffers referred to as “the colored computers.” Shetterly, whose father was one of the first African American engineers employed by NASA, is a journalist.

The adaptation was developed by producer Donna Gigliotti (producer of Oscar-caliber fare like “Shakespeare In Love” and “Silver Linings Playbook”), with Allison Schroeder penning the screenplay adaptation, which 20th Century Fox picked up, with an early 2016 production start date eyed.

The other actresses who will play the remaining team of African American women mathematicians will be announced over the next few weeks, as Fox is eyeing a January 13, 2017 release date for the film, which is less than a year away; meaning, production will begin in a matter of a month or two. Maybe the other names that were on the early list (Oprah and Viola) will eventually be announced as cast members as well.

Also worth noting is that a January release suggests that the film isn’t an awards season property for the studio; unless it gets a late 2016 qualifying run in a limited number of theaters (NYC and LA specifically), and then opens wide in January 2017. No one has read the book yet (except the people who are making a film based on it), but it certainly reads like awards material.

In the meantime, regarding to book, I did come across the following statement from the author on her motivations for writing it: “You’ve heard the names John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. What about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith or Barbara Holley? Most Americans have no idea that from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cadre of African-American women formed part of the country’s space work force, or that this group—mathematical ground troops in the Cold War—helped provide NASA with the raw computing power it needed to dominate the heavens… HIDDEN FIGURES recovers the history of these pioneering women and situates it in the intersection of the defining movements of the American century: the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the quest for gender equality. We all know what a scientist looks like: a wild-eyed person in a white lab coat and utilitarian eyeglasses, wearing a pocket protector and holding a test tube. Mostly male. Usually white. Even Google, our hive mind, confirms the prevailing view. Just do an image search for the word “scientist”. For me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. There were also black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors and contractors, black shoe repair owners, wedding planners, real estate agents and undertakers, the occasional black lawyer and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did. After the start of World War II, Federal agencies and defense contractors across the country coped with a shortage of male number crunchers by hiring women with math skills. America’s aeronautical think tank, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the “NACA”), headquartered at Langley Research Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, created a pool of female mathematicians who analyzed endless arrays of data from wind tunnel tests of airplane prototypes. Women were thought to be more detail-oriented, their smaller hands better suited for repetitive tasks on the Friden manual adding machines. A “girl” could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job. And male engineers, once freed from laborious math work, could focus on more “serious” conceptual and analytical projects. The war also opened doors for African-Americans. In 1941, under pressure from labor and civil rights leaders such as A. Phillip Randolph, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, and prohibited race-based discrimination in the country’s defense industry. Shortly thereafter, help wanted notices began appearing in Negro newspapers around the country, looking for blacks to fill positions at Federal agencies and defense contractors. Langley advertised in Norfolk, VA’s Journal and Guide, seeking machine shop workers, laborers, janitors—and African-American women with math degrees. These women were nearly all top graduates of historically black colleges such as Hampton Institute, Virginia State and Wilberforce University. Though they did the same work as the white women hired at the time, they were were cloistered away in their own segregated office in the West Area of the Langley campus– thus the moniker, the West Computers. But despite the hardships of working under Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, these women went on to make significant contributions to aeronautics, astronautics, and America’s victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race.”

Check out the author’s website here, which is where I lifted the above statement. The book won’t be published until September 2016 unfortunately. But you can preorder now via Amazon here.

As I’ve said in previous posts on the project, the one lament that I’m sure many of you will have is that this isn’t being made by black filmmakers (the producer is white, as is the writer and the director). What more can I say that hasn’t already been said on that subject? So it goes… Let’s just hope that the film is true to author Margot Lee Shetterly’s words, as well as the *forgotten* women she writes about in her book, and to history.

Variety was first to announced Spencer’s casting. 

This Article is related to: News and tagged


jack robinson

Great to see the story of these brilliant women being shared. Dorothy Vaughn, one of the "Hidden Figures" is my wife’s grandmother. Our sons spent some beautiful summers visiting with her in Hampton. RIP


i see pbs doing a documentary about this already.




"this isn’t being made by black filmmakers (the producer is white, as is the writer and the director)". Damn damn double damn, I was all smiles while reading this inspirational post until the big kick in the gut arrived one-mo’-gin. Damn, yet another "Race", "48", Get On Up, Red Tails and the webseries "Send Me"… white folks selling soul food yet the cooks are not Tyrone or Shenika, nor Big Momma. However, on a side note, while serving in the military (GO AIR FORCE!), on several occasion I was afforded the opportunity to read about and see images of blacks in key military positions/roles/jobs which (much like those in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, "Hidden Figures") are not mention during Black History Month. So I appreciate this post if for nothing else than reading the author’s motivations for writing the book, particularly the parts about the environment (the hood, if you will) she lived in. Great inspirational reading! Which btw, should be required reading along side the traditional "we shall over come"… "we found a railroad" and "I had a Dream" stories.


Congrats to Octavia Spencer! Instead of Oprah, they can give Mo’Nique or Uzo Aduba the role.

rekeya singleton

all you needed is opportunity :)

Eddie Donahoo (KA HERU)

Wow this just such a beautiful projects film


There goes another one being like the herd. Marcus is being like your typical gossip goon who knows absolutely nothing about Mo’Nique other than his daily dose of tabloid fodder. He’s obviously too young to assist her as her lawyer or producer… so hush, Marcus B Like, quiet.

Marcus B Like

Mo’Nique does not conform for anyone except her husband. She is interested in the bottom line not the quality of the material she chooses to participate in. @Bee Moore

ellena ashiak

Subliminal ghost, I mean

ellena ashiak

Let’s all encourage our kids to submit thier will to talking via sysmbols sublimation ghost they have never met


whenever I see the names, Viola, octavia, or Oprah, I can’t help to think if mo’nique wild be added if she hadn’t been "difficult during awars season

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *