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Octavia Spencer and Pharrell Williams Make Up the Soul and Sound of ‘Hidden Figures’: Awards Spotlight

The pair brought quiet strength and a memorable soundtrack to an untold chapter in the space race saga.

Octavia Spencer and Pharrell Williams

Daniel Bergeron

After watching “Hidden Figures,” the intertwining tales of a trio of women who bolstered NASA’s space-race efforts in the early ’60s, it’s hard to imagine the film without the contributions of Octavia Spencer and Pharrell Williams.

Alongside the incredible stories of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), Spencer’s turn as Dorothy Vaughan shines as a beautifully subtle tribute to a self-made woman who defied expectations and limitations.

In “Hidden Figures,” Vaughan anticipates the challenges of an increasingly automated approach to NASA’s computing efforts and begins to embrace and master the IBM computer threatening to make the work of her department obsolete. Spencer sees a greater message in Vaughan’s expansion into then-emerging areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Hook-maker extraordinaire Williams doesn’t appear on screen, but his musical contributions help bridge the half-century gap between the stories of these three remarkable women and the film’s 2016 audience.

For Williams, who also served as a producer on “Hidden Figures,” the film was a convergence of countless personal connections that made the project impossible to refuse.

Williams’ songs aren’t merely tunes tacked on to a soundtrack to move units. Nor does the film wedge the stylings of a popular artist into its story as a shortcut to relevance. Though the infinitely catchy “Runnin'” might play for laughs the first time it’s introduced in the movie, the song’s final appearance manages to underscore both the film’s climactic moment and the film’s thematic throughline. It’s impossible to hear the echoes of “Yes we can” in the horn-heavy “Able” and not connect the achievements of Vaughan’s decade to this one.

Some of the “Hidden Figures” supporting players, like the late John Glenn, have featured prominently in American cinematic history as well as the greater cultural consciousness. Recognizing the importance of adding Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan to the NASA narrative, Williams and Kim Burrell’s closing credits song, “I See a Victory,” repeats a line in its chorus: “We’ll be writing history.” Spencer also talked about the historical divide between “who” and “how” that let this side of the quest for outer space remain untold on a national scale for nearly 60 years.

This period of the women’s lives isn’t defined by men or motherhood. It takes a fuller look at these contributions and the opportunities they created when none were given. “All they wanted to do was to be a part of something greater than themselves,” Spencer said. The same can now be said of those who helped bring the film to life.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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