“I gotta say it’s pretty humbling,” Melfi says in reaction to the success of Hidden Figures and the acts of kindness his film has inspired people to do. “I’ve gotten emails with pictures. The picture was a simple sign that said, ‘Attention Moviegoers. The 4.45 p.m. Showing of Hidden Figures is Free, Paid for by a Good Samaritan.’ And that’s happened three or four times.”
Ted Melfi’s Hidden Figures honors three great women; Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, NASA mathematicians who helped America win the space race. Until recently, if you didn’t work at NASA, odds are you probably would never know who these women were. Thanks to Hidden Figures, now we do. The film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as three bold women in the 1960s who did their job despite the obstacles society had set in front of them.
The feel-good film has grossed nearly $84 million at the box office since it’s Christmas Day release, inspiring people to hire out theaters so disadvantaged moviegoers can watch the film for free. Cast members Spencer and Henson are among the multiplex philanthropists.
I caught up with Melfi recently to talk about the film’s impact and how a late night pitch convinced him to do Hidden Figures instead of Spiderman.
Read our interview below:
AD: Did you ever think that people would be reacting this way to the film?
Ted Melfi: No. I had no idea. I don’t think anyone has any idea when they’re doing something. I just knew it had such a deep impact on me. All I ever thought, was that if it has this much impact on me, it’s surely going to have this much impact on someone else.
I just didn’t know to what degree. Who could have predicted that it would be this big? This is a $25 million dollar movie about three black mathematicians.
AD: Going back, how did it happen for you?
TM: I got a phone call from my agency on a Friday night. Johnny, who was a book agent had come across this 55-page book proposal by Margot Lee Shetterly and the first draft of the script by Allison Schroeder. UTA had represented Allison, and he pitched it to me over the phone.
I was in the middle of being considered for Spiderman, and I was meant to find out about that on Monday. They knew I was involved in that and that I could hear from that any day, but my agents wanted me to hear Johnny’s pitch.
He gets on the phone and tells me this story. He says, “In 1961, on the eve of America’s first mission into space, three black female mathematicians were integral to that process.” I was like, “What?” He goes on, and I told him to send it to me, I read it over the weekend and I withdrew my consideration of Spiderman on Monday. It’s a staggering story and it points to so many things we don’t know. If we knew, the world would be more inspired, and young black women, little girls, and all women may think they can do anything.
It showed us that black and white men and women worked together, and that was in the most difficult of times. Here we are again in the most difficult of times. We can get there and we have no choice.
AD: Katherine Johnson was awarded the medal of honor in 2015, and we didn’t pay attention to that. Why did it take so long for that to come to light?
TM: It’s a confluence of reasons as to why it took so long. One is the sexism of it all. We just didn’t tell the female side of the story. How could you tell John Glenn’s story at all and not have Katherine Johnson not be a part of it? How could you tell that story knowing there was a mathematician that was the only person he trusted with those numbers? It’s the sexism of it.
There’s also the racism.
The most profound thing is that we don’t have parades for mathematicians. We have parades for Kardashians and politicians, but we don’t have parades for the thousands of people who roll up their sleeves and actually make something happen. That’s a team effort.
We always put a front man, that one person ahead of everyone else. The information was also highly classified. We were so worried about Russian hacking which is funny to think about now. The entire Mercury mission was classified for many years.
We are dealing with a short period of history. The moment the IBM mainframes came and were functioning properly, the entire computing pools were shut down. You’re dealing with 5-10 years of history. It existed and then was completely erased.
All those things combined hid the story.
AD: You met with Katherine Johnson. What did you learn from her that was helpful in the filmmaking process?
TM: I met with her twice. The last time was with her daughters. The first time I interviewed her, I interviewed her extensively, on camera. What I really wanted to absorb from her was her spirit and her essence and who she was as a human. I knew the facts, I knew her ability, but I didn’t know the person.
I asked her questions and how she saw the world. I asked her, “Katherine, what was it like to experience racism and sexism in the workplace at NASA?” She looked at me like I as crazy and said, “What?! I didn’t experience any of that. I put my head down and did my work and everyone was so nice to me.”
I realized exactly who she was in that moment. She only saw forward. She didn’t look left, right or backward. She let her work speak for herself. She didn’t complain. She went straight to the top of her profession. So, despite the fact we know nothing about her, she has been honored inside the walls of NASA for over 40 years.
AD: You focus on that and the positivity. Was that always the intention of the movie and where you wanted to go with the film?
TM: That was always the intention. This movie is not going to be about a black woman complaining or acting out. This is about a woman who lets her ability do the talking and makes her color absolutely irrelevant. It was always going to be about, and after meeting her, that’s what it ended up being about.
We know the other side. We know the fire hoses, the KKK, the lynchings. We’ve seen it. This story is a different kind of racism and sexism. This is about heroes who do the work and push past every barrier by doing the work.
AD: What was it like creating Langley, for you to recreate that world?
TM: It’s like a kid playing with Lego. You get pictures, archival footage, and NASA gave us blueprints of the parking lot and the building. We visited Kennedy Space Center, NASA Langley. We took photos, pieced it together, and Wynn Thomas designed it with his fantastic team.
We started piecing it together, and it felt like we had Lego and were making something magical. It was a magical journey to recreate it, and take a little dramatic and creative license to make it even more inspiring and aspirational. We were like children.
AD: I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an increase in NASA interest and kids wanting to become scientists or astronauts after this.
TM: I’m hearing it all over the country. Kids now want to focus on math and science. I’m hearing hundreds of these stories.
AD: Before I let you go, let’s talk about the fantastic casting. You have this incredible cast, and you also have Janelle Monae who is outstanding. How did you know she was right for the role of Mary Jackson? I heard that she was the hardest part to cast.
TM: Mary Jackson was the ultimate warrior based on all the research. She was the fighter. The one who couldn’t turn a blind eye to anything that was happening. She was the spark plug. She wanted to be an engineer, they wouldn’t allow her into the program because of her degree. She fought to go to an all-white school. She won her case. She goes to an all-white school. She becomes the first engineer. After twenty years of being an engineer, she decides she wants to go into HR. She goes into HR with the sole intention of helping women and women of color advance at NASA. She hacks into the computer system and finds that men and women of color are not being promoted or paid at the same rate as their white counterparts. She petitions NASA and changes the system. That is Mary Jackson.
We had a hard time finding that spirit, that rebel in all our casting. Janelle walked in and she was on fire that couldn’t be put out. When she left, I turned to everyone and said, “That’s the spirit of Mary.”