The inspiring new film Hidden Figures tells the true story of three African-American women who were integral in successfully sending the first American astronauts into space. And although their triumph took place half a century ago, star Octavia Spencer believes their story still resonates strongly today.
Speaking on The Jess Cagle Interview, the Oscar-winning actress opened up to PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly‘s editorial director about the incredible influence Dorothy Vaughan, the first black supervisor at NASA, had — and what there still is to learn from these heroines.
Even in times of hardship and turbulence, Spencer says, individuals can still make a difference. That’s what Vaughan and her two influential coworkers, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), did with little credit given to them in the 1950s.
“African-American women were living at the time where segregation was the letter of the law,” Spencer, 46, says. “They were basically treated as second-class citizens, but they weren’t complaining. They knew that they had more to offer, and they basically rolled up their sleeves and they did the work to be a part of something greater than themselves.”
During her decades at NASA, Vaughan headed the West Area Computing Unit after Jim Crow laws required segregation of the female African-American mathematicians from their white counterparts.
For more from Octavia Spencer, watch the full episode of The Jess Cagle Interview, streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.
Despite the three women’s plight, their work made it possible for the United States to catch up in the space race by launching the first American, Alan Shepard, into space and sending John Glenn into orbit around the Earth. Spencer feels their attitude is important to keep in mind today.
“I think what we can learn from them in light of the climate, that depending on which side of the coin you’re on politically, is no matter what’s going on, you have power,” Spencer explains. “The individual has power. But together we are many, and strong.”
The movie’s makers aim to inspire the next generation of talented young women, too: 20th Century Fox and Black Girls Code partnered to create FutureKatherineJohnsons.com, a website built by girls who want to follow in the footsteps of the film’s heroines.