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Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer Tearful But Eloquent As ‘Hidden Figures’ Considers Its Oscars Options In Toronto

The TIFF event provided an emotional first look at the drama based on the NASA careers of three African-American women -- and, possibly, an Oscar contender.

Hidden Figures poster Pharrell Williams Taraji P. Henson Octavia Spencer

The Toronto International Film Festival provided a soft landing for about 30 minutes of scenes from Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures,” the 20th Century Fox drama about three African-American women who provided the mathematical brainpower that helped launch John Glenn into space.

To be clear, the film’s official release date is January 13, 2017 — for now. However, this comes out of Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000 division, which also shepherded “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Life of Pi,” and the studio has been considering its awards options on the title for months. They worked with TIFF to create an official event for the unfinished film — rare for the festival, which generally reserves its attention for completed works. 

“Hidden Figures Live” included a press line that featured stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as well as Pharrell Williams, who provided the music in partnership with Hans Zimmer. After the screening, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey moderated a Q&A with the cast and Williams, along with producer Jeno Topping. (Melfi had to introduce the film via video.) 

“I’m a girl from the hood,” Henson said. “When you come from a place where you have no dreams, no hope, all that you see is that people who look like you don’t belong, that they have no place in society, right? This story is important, this story is so important. If I’d known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist. Who knows.

“Not to say that I’ve had a a bad journey” — she broke off, laughing (“Let me clear that up”) — “but what I’m trying to say is is that nowadays, this is all that kids of color think they have. Sports. Rap. Acting. And there’s so much more important work to be done, and to be a part of product like [“Hidden Figures”], that will give children like you, and you (pointing to Octavia and Janelle) and me, hope to dream a different dream.” 

Hidden Figures at TIFF

“Hidden Figures” stars Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson, composer Pharrell Williams, producer Jeno Topping, and TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.

As the audience applauded, Henson wiped her eyes. “I look a mess in makeup,” she said. “Should be like Alicia Keys and take it off.”

Spencer, who tartly noted that no women were mentioned as being part of NASA in “Apollo 13,” portrays Dorothy Vaughn, a computer repairperson who trained herself to program FORTRAN, and later trained all the black and white women at NASA. “I’m sad that Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (portrayed by Monae) won’t be here to see this thing.” Spencer’s voice grew shaky. “I’m excited that Katharine Johnson will.” 

As Henson agreed, she became the only person to mention the O word. “People come up to me and they go, “Ohh, Oscars!” — I don’t accept that pressure, I let y’all say it — but what I was most concerned about was if Katharine would be proud,” she said. “Whether the Oscars love it, whether other awards — will she be happy. That’s all I care about.” 

While Fox is not ready to commit to an Oscar campaign for the title, the movie’s uplifting message appears to be an optimistic way to address the #BlackLivesMatter movement, not to mention #OscarsSoWhite. 

“We see what’s going on in society now, right?” Henson said. “It shouldn’t matter what god you celebrate, what color your skin is, who you go to sleep with at night, who you say ‘I do’ to — this movie represents what we should be thinking. How do we make this place better?”

Pharrell performed songs from the film after the screening in an outdoor concert, supported by Kim Burrell, Lalah Hathaway, and a local gospel group, Echoes of Praise. 

“Hidden Figures” will open on January 13, 2017.

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