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.”
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.