In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.
Hidden Figures, the first adapted screenplay in our Oscar series, may give some of its biggest moments to NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), but it’s really the story of three women and each of their individual struggles to get recognition within the space program. Aside from Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, there’s also Mary Jackson, who’s played by Janelle Monáe and is the subject of the scene co-writer Allison Schroeder and co-writer and director Theodore Melfi analyzed for EW.
In the scene, Mary petitions a judge in a segregated courtroom for the ability to attend extension courses at a all-white high school in order to become an engineer.
ALLISON SCHROEDER: We didn’t have Margot Lee Shetterly’s book yet when we started writing this. We just had her book proposal.
THEODORE MELFI: We had 55 pages.
AS: It was just a true story. Mary actually had to petition this judge. The content of it and what actually happened, that’s where Ted and I had to use our imagination starts there. We knew the judge said, “Yes.” One of the things that we started with was that even the courtroom was segregated. There’s the scene leading up to it, and you have to establish that even in the courtroom, she’s at a disadvantage.
TM: By that point in the movie, you’re so personally connected to Mary — you know her as a human being and you know her personality — to see her go the opposite way of her personality kept it fresh. You expect her to be feisty and fiery like she’s been the whole movie, and here she tries a completely different tact, so it’s unexpected for you in my mind.
TM: We had one version where she appealed to his sense of fear about the Russians.
AS: Right, as a military man. There was one when someone from the white computing school had given her some tip-off to his backstory and what would appeal to him. We thought, “No, it should all be able Mary. She did it all on her own. Does it appeal the need to get over the Russians?” But then that ultimately ended up being the opening scene of the film. We didn’t want to hit that beat twice. Then it became, “What would convince the judge?”
TM: Another key word for us was the word “first” and appealing to the judge’s sense of history and being on the right side of it. Knowing that Mary ends up becoming the first African-American female aeronautical engineer at NASA and in the country, we kind of worked backwards and used this word “first” to propel the scene. She uses this to appeal to his first and her first and how they could do it together.
AS: Courtroom scenes tend to focus on the judge or the lawyer. This is Mary’s scene. She’s the hero of this scene, and she works this judge to get him to give her what she wants. She’s not screaming. She’s not on a huge preaching monologue to the jury. She looked him in the eye, pled her case and won.
TM: Not often do you get to see someone petitioning a judge and presenting the judge a case that’s not an attorney. It’s based on human emotions.
AS: Also, that she was only allowed at the night classes, that was sort of the judge having a little bit of a leg to stand on.
AS: It was important that she was very dignified in the courtroom and very in-control, but the moment that she left it, you saw her erupt in joy. That was very important. You got her dignity, and then you got to feel her let out this scream that she’s been holding inside. Janelle Monáe played that adorably. You scream with her. When you’re in the audience, you can feel the audience be excited with her.