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

Taraji P. Henson Will Topline Film Based on Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Worked for NASA During the Space Race

Taraji P. Henson Will Topline Film Based on Story of Black Women Mathematicians Who Worked for NASA During the Space Race

This is the kind of wonderfully atypical Civil Rights-era story that gets me excited!

Last fall, it was announced that author Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, “Hidden Figures,” which hasn’t actually been published yet (but will be this year via HarperCollins), was been 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 book was optioned and 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.

At the time of the initial announcement, it was reported that Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson were all on the producer’s short list of actresses that were being considered for starring roles in the film. Today, the studio has confirmed that Ms. Henson has now been cast to headline the drama, starring as mathematician Katherine Johnson.

The actresses who will play of her colleagues will be announced at a later date. Although that should happen soon, as Fox is is eyeing a January 13, 2017 release date, which is less than a year away; meaning, production will begin in a matter of a month or two. 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.

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.

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.

This Article is related to: News and tagged


Ronald Flint

Kudos to Everyone involved in this project. Finally Hollywood is picking up stories about unsung historical heroes of color like the many black scientists, mathematicians, and astronauts that been a part of American space programs throughout history. This a good start no matter who direct and produce it. Let’s give them a chance. But if they face huge identity crisis, they better give Spike Lee and add on the team.


Why do you refer to ‘Black’mathematics when your correspondent admits toor me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine.


@ IG-88, her golf one (In The Tough?) has surfaced. It’s an interesting peek into her acting abilities when she’s not being "characters" (sassy over-the-top Cookie (Empire), a Ho (Hustle & Flow), a mammy (Benjimen Button). @ John Lindsay and IG-88, why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. Now, why didn’t Ava grab this project and why didn’t the author choose a producer and director of color? They obviously didn’t want to (cross that road), which is their right. Geez… some people live in frivolity.

John Lindsay

I wonder why the book’s author Margot Lee Shetterly, didn’t opt to have the film produced by a producer of color as well as a director of color?


I’m laughing at Ava. They won’t make films with black protagonist huh? Ava, how come you didn’t grab this project. Hell, you live there. As long as this movie doesn’t disappear like her golf one. Remember that?

David P.Browning

Times are changing too slowly for African Americans shameful!I swear! I feel for her. She’s beautiful,intelligent and a fantasy for me in a dreamy marriage ��. I think she is hot as well as intelligent.

David P. Browning

Times are changing,but too slowly.

Penelope Flynn

I am less concerned about who it is that makes the film than I am with the hope that is is made well. I lookl forward to seeing it on the big screen and hope that in addition to the already-known talent that the producers take the opportunity to introduce new talent to the screen.


@IG-88 Sometimes I don’t know with Taraji! She seems to be always in character. I never saw Viola Davis do an interview as her characters from The Help or How to get away with Murder!
@Eric No, I didn’t see Taraji in Benjamin Button! I saw a lot of her other movies and they were hoodrat roles! I will wait until the movie comes out and then I will pass judgement.


Fascinating story! This is the kind of "previously untold" story that I love. Kudos to Ms. Shetterly’s for writing "Hidden Figures." I am disappointed that neither the director nor the writer are African-American (would the film have been greenlit if they were?), but I look forward to reading the book and seeing the movie. I think Taraji will do a great job as Katherine Johnson and remind folks that she’s more than "Cookie Lyons." I’m anxious to see who gets cast as her colleagues. There are COUNTLESS stories in our rich history that deserve to be told. The lives of remarkable but little-known people like Bass Reeves, Mary Fields, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, Oscar Micheaux, Daniel Hale Williams, Ida B. Wells, Ernest E. Just, and Elizabeth Catlett, to name just a few, would also provide great material for film.


Thanks for reporting on this important story Tambay.


I can’t wait to watch this! But I first thought of Kerry Washington for the role. But I’m very happy for Taraji.


This is refreshing news. Great potential for meaty storytelling. I am looking forward to seeing more of Taraji in this light. Hellz yeah for Viola and Octavia as colleagues!!!!! @Troublemaker –LOLOLOL


Sounds like Troublemaker didn’t see her in the Benjamin Button movie. She’s a solidly skilled actor. I believe its her job to transform, yeah?


So you’re telling me we’re going to have our own ‘The Imitation Game?’ Don’t worry troublemaker, Taraji is trained like Viola. She needs more to do then a black soap opera. Keep this up, the next oscars will be #oscarssoblack.

Mark and Darla

This is a nice read, congrat Taraji.


Congrats to Taraji! I really hope that Taraji leaves all hoodrat instincts and behaviors at home or on the set of Empire! It ain’t nothing worse than seeing Cookie as a Mathematician at NASA!


Considering the Awards Bait premise and the fact the studio is eager to get started before the book is even finished, I would guess they will be giving this film a year end awards qualifying run prior to the January 2017 date.


Did you just compare pioneer astronauts who risked their lives to do what they do to behind the scenes mathematicians? Because they’re black? Wow. Let’s see if anyone knows any white mathematicians names that worked for NASA instead of fucking all star astronauts. Poorly pointed and written article.

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