The way star Taraji P. Henson tells it, “ ” was simply meant to be.
“I knew we were making something special. I could feel it,” Henson recently told IndieWire of her experience on the film. “It was the right movie to be made at the right time. The right people. We couldn’t have mapped this out better. This was the order of the universe.”
But a closer look suggests that the film had a more specific reason for coming into being — to fill an underserved niche for stories of strong women.
Set in the early sixties at the height of the Space Race, Ted Melfi’s film follows the true stories of a trio of forgotten American heroes: real-life NASA employees Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.
As part of the segregated West Area Computer group (back when “computer” actually referred to a human being who made computations), the three African-American women at the heart of the film all overcame prejudice and racism in many forms to achieve mightily. Melfi’s film is primarily focused on the intense lead-up to the 1962 Friendship 7 mission, which saw astronaut John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth, a mission that was made possible by the work of the West Area mathematicians and engineers, particularly Johnson (played by Henson in the film).
It was a story long begging to be told, finally fashioned into the kind of crowd-pleasing holiday movie-going experience that seems poised to appeal to both families and critics alike. And while it’s already started pulling in awards attention, particularly for Henson and her co-stars Octavia Spencer (who has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in the film) and Janelle Monáe (who co-stars as the spunky Jackson), its real value goes beyond shiny hardware:
It’s the exact kind of fact-based, feel-good fare the world needs right now.
Finding the Figures
“Hidden Figures” couldn’t have happened without producer Donna Gigliotti, who first discovered Margot Lee Shetterly’s proposal for the non-fiction book of the same name that would frame up so much of the action of the film. Still, the president of independent outfit Levantine Films demurs when asked about her foresight in seeing the filmmaking possibilities of Shetterly’s dense 55-page proposal.
“Honestly, it was sitting out there in plain sight,” Gigliotti said. “Anybody could have done exactly what I did.”
Initially found by one of her assistants, who amusingly billed it as “‘9 to 5’ meets ‘Apollo 13,'” Gigliotti sparked instantly to the material. She couldn’t let it go, toting it around town to other meetings, where she asked friends and colleagues – including early fan Whoopi Goldberg – if they knew anything about the women it portrayed.
They didn’t, but they knew their story needed to be told. That sense of urgent need wasn’t limited to just Gigliotti.
Early in the development process, up-and-coming producer Mimi Valdes, who had recently produced “Dope” alongside musician Pharrell Williams, had a meeting with Gigliotti for an unrelated project. She mentioned “Hidden Figures” and Valdes instantly knew what her and Williams’ next project was going to be. Williams has been obsessed with NASA since he was a kid, and Gigliotti estimates it took him 20 minutes to call her up after Valdes left her office. They had to be on the project.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Are you serious? What can we do to get on that project? That’s the one that we want to get on,'” Valdes remembered.
Gigliotti soon added to her coterie, folding in eventual star Octavia Spencer and director Ted Melfi. Next up, Gigliotti required a screenwriter who could really understand the two-pronged nature of the material – in other words, a strong female writer who was well-versed in math and science.
That’s where Allison Schroeder came in. She’s a self-professed “NASA baby”: her own grandmother had been a programmer at NASA, her grandfather was an engineer, and she’d been recruited to work at NASA when she was still in high school.
“I hopped on the phone with Donna, and Donna says that I very idealistically said, ‘I was born to write this film,'” Schroeder said. “I don’t think I was that cheesy.”
After Schroeder completed her screenplay – aided by Shetterly, who generously provided her original research – Gigliotti went looking for a studio home. Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler was on vacation in Nicaragua when the script was first sent to her, along with an urgent note to read it ASAP. “I read it right away,” Gabler said. “And I thought, this is a movie that I have to be a part of. I have to.”
An Unknown Story
The title “Hidden Figures” couldn’t be more pointed. Shetterly’s book sheds light on a whole host of black female mathematicians who helped guide NASA to some of its most well-known achievements during the country-wide fervor that was the Space Race. Many of them were lost to history, unmentioned and seemingly forgotten.
“When I read the script, I thought it was fictional,” Monáe said. “I said, ‘Wow! Finally someone is creating the roles that I want to see.’ Three black women and they’re not maids, they’re not secretaries, they’re not being lynched? They’re protagonists and are dealing with space?’ This is amazing.”
Spencer recalled a similar experience. “Because I’d never heard the story, I assumed that it was historical fiction,” she said. “Then when I met with Donna, she was like, ‘No, it is not historical fiction. It is actually true,’ which made me want to do it even more. How often do we get to be a part of original stories in our industry?”
Much of the cast was frustrated by unknown status of the story. “Growing up, the universal understanding was ‘math and science was for boys,'” Henson said. “How would I know [this story]? If I knew it, then that myth would have been busted a long time ago.”
That reaction echoed through the crew as well. “These women who were geniuses were also humble and didn’t ever seek recognition for themselves,” cinematographer Mandy Walker said. “It represented an important story in our history that I was amazed had not been told.”
Even Schroeder — the “NASA baby” who grew up just miles from Cape Canaveral and spent her childhood visiting her grandmother on campus — wasn’t familiar with the West Area Computer group and their many accomplishments.
“Hidden Figures” offered the chance to set that right.
Although “Hidden Figures” is primarily driven by the true stories of its characters’ professional accomplishments, it also pays attention to the very special bond between Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson.
“I knew from the beginning that I would focus on these three women and their friendship,” Schroder said. “We needed to see a movie where women lifted each other up. That was step one.”
Monáe was struck by a film that so lovingly portrayed not just one, not two, but three strong female characters driven by success, while still holding tightly to their love for each other. “These are three female protagonists,” Monáe said. “They’re all three alpha females, and they’re best friends too. They give an example to all women, and even men.”
The strong undercurrent of feminism that runs through the film was there from its earliest incarnations, and was paramount to Gigliotti. “It’s how I attempt to live my life,” Gigliotti said. “I grew up in the seventies and feminism was not a dirty word. Really, what you were after was the sisterhood. We all have to get there together, so we better hold hands.”
That’s perhaps what shines brightest about the film. “Those women had to stick together,” Monáe said. “They had to encourage each other, uplift each other.”
For Henson, who was the first cast member to officially come on board the project in early 2016, “it was very important that the chemistry of the cast members” reflected that bond that existed between the trio in real life. “I knew we would have that sisterhood, that bond,” she said.
The sentiment was carried onto the set. “It felt powerful,” Henson said when asked about being surrounded by so many strong women while telling this story. “The message that I have, and that I’ve been saying over and over, when women stick together, we will change the world. All of those women on this project saw how important this film was, as a woman, don’t matter, black, white, whatever. As a woman, this film is important.”
Facing the Future
Set in a time of political and idealogical division, “Hidden Figures” provides a chance for audiences to see how similar times in history played out – by uniting people. “The universe ordered this movie now,” Henson said. “We need it now, we didn’t need it five years ago. We need it now.“
As the industry is also in a state of flux, pushed forward by continued cries for projects that better speak to the diversity of the world it attempts to portray and entertain, “Hidden Figures” has the chance to prove how desired these kinds of stories really are.
“Culture wants these stories. We’re hungry for them,” Monáe said. “We’re ready to empathize even more. We’re ready to get new superheroes, and we’re ready to see the people that we may know in our everyday life to portrayed and have a voice on screen.”
Henson is also hopeful that the film – and the kind of success it seems likely to garner – will inspire the industry to tell new stories.
“I hope it leaves Hollywood thirsty and hungry to find more stories like this to produce,” Henson said. “There are some other heroes out there we don’t even know about. I’m sure this story is one of a million.”
It’s already made Valdes feel more adventurous and willing to push past boundaries. “On paper, the movie isn’t supposed to work,” Valdes said with a laugh. “Three female protagonists. It’s period. It’s black women. It’s math, it’s science. It’s all the things that technically aren’t supposed to work.”
Now they just need the audience to show up. The film is holding steady at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its limited release date over the holiday may encourage families to check it out over heavier or more action-centric fare, like “Fences” and “Rogue One.” The true test will come when it opens wide in early January, which offers a far more open field for such a crowd-pleaser.
“I want women to go see the movie – and I want women of all ages, colors, creeds, I don’t care if they are blue state or red state,” Gigliotti said. “Acknowledge these women and look at what they did, look at what you can do. That is my hope.”
Walker, who is a minority in her own profession — a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film holds that the number is around 6% — is eager for the film to inspire women to strive in their careers.
“I hope as I do for my daughter that women, all women of different color, cultures and backgrounds can achieve their goals and have the careers they want and not feel restricted in their choices,” she said. “This movie is important and told in an entertaining way that also encompasses the story of these proud women overcoming the more extreme obstacles they faced of their time, racism, segregation and sexism and they did it with pride and humility.”
Spencer is happy to skew just a touch younger. “We just want to get it out there to the broader audience, and to the audience that it’s meant for,” Spencer said. “Little girls, little dreamers. Our future scientists, our future mathematicians and engineers, and girls leading in technology.”
Monáe put it in more cinematic terms: “I hope that these women – Mary, Katherine, Dorothy – become their new superheroes,” she said. “I hope that they look to these women whenever they get lost, or afraid, or scared, or they feel like they’re told their dreams are not valid because of their weight, or their sexual orientation, or the color of their skin — or because they’re a woman.”
“Hidden Figures” opens nationwide on December 25.