The cast of Hidden Figures has broken another barrier in a monumental year for diversity in mainstream movies.
Fronted by Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures‘ predominantly black repertoire earned the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Sunday night, beating out the band of actors behind fellow contenders Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Fences, and Captain Fantastic.
Taraji P. Henson — who stars as Katherine Johnson in the Theodore Melfi-directed crowd-pleaser about three female, African-American NASA mathematicians who successfully aided the U.S. space program amid racial tensions in the 1960s — accepted the award on her fellow performers’ behalf.
In an impassionated speech, Henson honored the women on which the film is based and called for unity as a human race.
“This film is about unity,” Henson said. “We stand here as proud actors thanking every member of this incredible guild for voting for us, for recognizing our hard work. But the shoulders of the women that we stand on are three American heroes: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. Without them, we would not know how to reach the stars.”
She continued: “These women did not complain about the problems, their circumstances, the issues. We know what was going on in that era. They didn’t complain. They focused on solutions. Therefore, these brave women helped put men into space. We cannot forget the brave men that also worked with us. God rest his soul in peace, John Glenn.”
“This story is of unity,” she concluded. “This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race. We win. Love wins every time. Thanks so much for appreciating these women — they are hidden figures no more.”
Henson and costars Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe continued the call for unity while talking to reporters backstage after their win.
“I think the major role of an artist is to use the art that God gave you to touch and change lives, because he put us here and we’re all different for a reason,” Henson said. “We better damn well figure it out. Because no one group is better than the other. We’re all humans here to get along and make this big world go around. … There’s a reason why [Hidden Figures] was made now, not two years ago, not five years ago, not 10 years ago. Because the universe needed it now.”
Spencer added, “I realized that as an actress in this film, representing people who were marginally underrepresented, that we could make a difference in a way. And I think the fact that we are, that the movie is resonating in the box office, is saying that people are hearing the message, and they’re feeling the message.”
Monáe echoed the sentiments of her costars, adding, “I think the colors of us, the nuances of us that all make us unique, represent a sheer humanity, and I think this film reminds us that we’ve been through harder times. We’ve been through more difficult times, and we got through it back then during the segregation era, and we can get through it now. We just have to remember, in the great words of Kevin Costner, we all pee the same color. We really do. We’re not that damn different. And I think that’s the great thing about America. We get to come here and be our authentically unique selves.”
Earlier in the evening, their Hidden Figures costar Mahershala Ali won the award for supporting actor for his role in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which also stars Monáe. That film was also nominated for best performance by an ensemble.
Across the past 22 SAG Awards ceremonies, only one film has won the guild’s ensemble award without a corresponding Best Picture nomination from the Academy: 1996’s The Birdcage. Nine prior films won the SAG award but did not go on to translate their Best Picture nominations into an Oscar victory.
Since the SAG Awards’ inaugural ceremony in 1995, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart remains the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without a SAG ensemble nod. This year, despite SAG’s nearly 200,000-strong ranks providing crossover membership for AMPAS’ largest voting branch, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land — which earned a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations and won the Producers Guild of America’s top award earlier this week — was ignored by the SAG voting committee in the ensemble category.
Hidden Figures is now playing in theaters nationwide.