In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, but the heroic astronaut would have failed to launch without the efforts of a group that included three brilliant mathematicians, minds so gifted they were referred to within NASA as “human computers.” Yet these key players in the history of the U.S. space program — Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — were basically forgotten in the annals of history, their groundbreaking contributions obscured by the long shadow of racism in the Jim Crow-era South. “I thought it was historical fiction,” says Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help). “To find out it was actually true? It was about time to credit them for their contributions.”
Hidden Figures (out now in limited release) is all about giving the women that long-overdue recognition. The movie, directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), stars Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) as Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively, and focuses on their professional hurdles and the friendship that sustains them amid the sexism and forced segregation of the era. (Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons costar as fellow NASA employees.)
It’s a bond that carried over for the three actresses, too. “It’s a serious movie, but in order to breathe life into the seriousness of the role and the profundity, you have to have moments of levity,” Spencer says. “There was no lack of that on the set. Taraji, being the social bug that she is, likes to entertain people. She would have us over to her house and cook for us.” Still, Henson says, no one doubted the magnitude of the stories they were telling. “The film is bigger than me. Bigger than any award. On these wonderful women’s shoulders, we ride.”
After 60 years of their stories being in the darkness, it took the daughter of a NASA research scientist to finally bring the women of Hidden Figures into the spotlight. Writer Margot Lee Shetterly’s father worked with Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, and the author learned about the ladies through him. Shetterly’s 55-page book proposal for Figures eventually made the rounds in Hollywood and caught the attention of Melfi. “I couldn’t believe that there were black women at NASA and that they were segregated from the white people at the same time they were working on the same project,” Melfi says. “I was floored that we didn’t know anything about these women.”
Before shooting began in Atlanta in March 2016, Melfi and Henson visited 98-year-old Johnson at her home in Virginia to learn more about her experiences firsthand. “We sat and talked and went through photo albums,” Henson says. “Her children were there, and her grandchildren. I really felt a responsibility when her children met me. They were like, ‘We couldn’t think of a better actress to play our mom.’ I was like, ‘No pressure!'” Johnson was surprised that anyone found her story so compelling, Melfi says. “She said multiple times, ‘I don’t know why you’re making a movie about me. I just did my work,'” he says. “She’s just so humble and doesn’t understand what she’s done to pave the way for other women or women of color.”
Melfi set out to celebrate just how special Johnson and her colleagues were — and to pay tribute to good old-fashioned brainpower. “We don’t have parades for mathematicians, we have parades for astronauts,” he says. “You don’t think about all the thousands of people who worked on that capsule and crunched the numbers and were integral in getting that into space.” To that end, the production sought to depict historical events with great accuracy, if only on a faster timetable. Case in point: In the film, Henson as Johnson has to compute the stats for Glenn’s landing in minutes. In reality, she had three days. “What’s dramatized is the way things happened but not the fact that they happened,” Melfi says.
Besides, the facts alone are more than enough. Johnson became a trusted member of Glenn’s flight team and the first African-American woman to sit in on NASA briefings. She was responsible for the equations that led to Glenn — who died on Dec. 8 at age 95, just weeks before Figures‘ release — both launching and landing safely for his 1962 orbit around Earth. Henson, who failed a college math course, says that mastering rocket-science-level equations to play Johnson helped her conquer her own phobias. “Math always made me nervous,” she says. “I always felt unworthy. This helped heal that. I faced that fear.” Vaughan became the first African-American supervisor in the space program, later teaching herself the agency’s state-of-the-art IBM computers. Jackson went on to be NASA’s first African-American female engineer.
To depict these pioneers’ victories, however, the cast also had to shine a light on the struggles they endured, which often proved painful. “I gotta tell ya — that era sucked,” Spencer says. “I’ve become this person who does period movies, and I actually hate having to be there emotionally. It’s not something you can easily walk away from.” Monáe also says shooting some of the film’s most poignant scenes — in which Jackson must legally petition to be allowed to attend university classes at night at a segregated high school — took an emotional toll. “All I could think about was how wrong and upsetting and sad it was,” she says. “I just had to use it to fuel my drive to make sure I honored this woman [in a way] that hopefully will make her proud.”
Melfi is hoping that in a complicated post-election landscape, Figures‘ themes of female empowerment will resonate strongly with audiences. “Raising two daughters, I just wanted to tell the story for them and for all the women around the world who need to be lifted up,” he says.
Critics’ groups are certainly taking note. In the lead-up to Figures‘ Christmas release (it will expand to more theaters Jan. 6), the film earned Spencer nominations for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for best supporting actress. The cast, too, was nominated by SAG for best ensemble.
Perhaps the most notable accolade so far, though, is the response from Johnson, the only living member of Figures’ trio (Vaughan and Jackson died in November 2008 and February 2005, respectively). In November, Melfi and the studio rented a theater in Johnson’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia, to screen the film for her and her daughters. In the dark screening room, the family wept. “We will be a part of the telling of their history,” Spencer says. “To me, that is a great achievement.”