Not too long ago, if the names Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were mentioned most of us would would have asked, “Who are they?” Not any longer. Now we know.
$109 million box office dollars and still climbing, a surprise SAG Award for Outstanding Ensemble Cast in a Motion Picture, and three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, has helped focus nationwide attention on these three incredible Hidden Figures.
Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan in a film that finally tells the untold story of three extraordinary women, African-American NASA scientists whose work was integral in ensuring John Glenn could safely orbit earth, safely splash down. This was our first foray into outer space that eventually led America to win the race to the moon.
Octavia Spenser stars alongside Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae, portraying three of the women who served as “human computers” before IBM came along. They faced many obstacles in an era when racism, prejudice and a civil rights movement was going on all around them, but they showed up to work and got the job done.
I caught up with Spencer recently, and discovered that much like the rest of us, prior to Hidden Figures, she too had never heard the story of these ladies. “My agent called me to meet with Donna Gigliotti, and I thought this story was entirely fiction because otherwise we would know it.” As soon as she found out it was a true story she said, “I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” Spencer saw the role and the film as a tremendous honor and great way of paying respect to these pioneers and preserving their legacy. “Katherine (Johnson) was awarded the medal of freedom in 2015 by President Obama.” Spencer says. “Two of these women are no longer with us.”
Google “Hidden Figures” and you’ll find most links are about the film — although it’s based on a book by the same name. Spencer tells me when she was doing additional research there wasn’t much information available to her, but author Margo Lee Shetterly’s research helped her a great deal. “She had culled the archives at NASA… She really categorizes all of the contributions these women made to NASA. She had done so many interviews, and we had access to family members.” All this helped Spencer she only had three weeks to prepare for the role and understand the essence of who Dorothy Vaughan really was and bring that essence to the screen.
There is undeniable chemistry between the three actresses when you see them onscreen. “Chemistry is something you can’t manufacture.” Said Spencer. “Knowing their history, and knowing that Dorothy was close to Katherine’s family, you hope you’d have that same chemistry.” Needless to say, “We had chemistry from day one.”
Hidden Figures is set in the early 1960s. Spencer says of working on a period film, “It’s not fun going back knowing that these women were treated as second class citizens and knowing that they had so much to contribute.” Katherine Johnson’s calculations were essential to John Glenn’s successful orbit of the Earth. Mary Jackson was one of the first African-American engineers at NASA. She challenged discrimination and the barriers standing in her way and studied Advanced Engineering. Dorothy Vaughan, like the others worked in the segregated West Area computing area of Langley, Virginia. She studied and learned the language of Fortran and went on to become Head of the Analysis and Computation Division.
“History has not been kind to African-American women.” Spencer says. “Mary’s character as we see, brought about change because of her youth and the audacity of youth that she had to stand up for what was right… I have always believed in advocacy for women in the workplace. I believe in diversity whether you are a white woman, black, Latino, impaired. All different shapes and sizes, and of different beliefs.” A brief pause and Spencer adds, “After playing this character, I had to use my room in the room where it happens,” alluding to the song featured in the Broadway show, Hamilton.
While her character Vaughan was a genius in math, Spencer tells me that she herself was, “sufficient at math.” She explains, “I am a creative and so our brains are wired differently. The creative mind is open to infinity.”
When we speak to anyone in the cast and the creatives who helped bring this story to the big screen, they will all tell you the same story of how they were for the most part unaware of the Hidden Figures, but they’re all extremely grateful that this story has come to light.
“It’s a role I was destined to play and I’m happy people are loving the melody.” All across the country, patrons are getting to see this film, taking their sisters, their girlfriends, their mothers, their daughters. Director and writer Ted Melfi said, “It’s humbling to think that this little women about three female mathematicians has had this much impact.” Melfi adds, “The most rewarding thing for me is the hundreds and hundreds of emails and text messages from people all around the country who are inspired and thinking of different careers. Teachers are taking classes, mothers are taking kids, and that to me is so uplifting.”
Aside from encouraging and inspiring Americans of every age and background, benevolent patrons and supporters of the have been buying out entire showings in out movie theaters and offering free tickets to movie-lovers, so more people can discover Hidden Figures and the women behind it. “It’s humbling.” Spencer tells me. “These women blazed a trail and I’m glad we are getting to see their story.”