'Hidden Figures' team: More films that inspire, educate needed

By Christie Zizo, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Wednesday, January 04, 2017, 2:49 PM EST

Taraji P. Henson felt lied to.

The Emmy-nominated actress said she believed her whole life that science and math were “for boys.”

Then she read the script for “Hidden Figures” and her character, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

  • "Hidden Figures" cast and crew visited Kennedy Space Center in December
  • Toured John Glenn's launch site, talked about the film's importance

 “And so I get the script and I read it, and through all the obstacles they still amazing – they were still able to change the course of history,” Henson said. “And how come I don’t know that? How come we didn’t know that?

“And I remember saying to Ted, I have to do this movie, this movie is so important,” Henson said. “Because not one girl should feel like I felt.”

“Hidden Figures” could be an important movie at a time when science, technology, engineering and math classes and careers get priority in schools and are being pushed onto young people, and particularly girls.

“Hidden Figures,” opening everywhere Friday, features the “human computers” of NASA – smart, math-oriented women who did the calculations that took American astronauts into space in the 60s.

Specifically, the film is about the women of the West Computer Group, where black women worked for NASA at the Langley Research Center in Hampton Roads, VA. The women were segregated from white women who worked as computers. Women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson helped break barriers for both women and women of color.

Henson, Octavia Spencer (Vaughan) and Janelle Monae (Jackson) joined director Theodore Melfi and producer Pharrell Williams at Kennedy Space Center Monday for a tour and to talk about the film.

The true story of “Hidden Figures” was partially classified, specifically the early work of NASA’s predecessor, NACA.

But NASA historian Bill Barry said part of the reason we are just hearing about Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson now is because these women, like so many other people in NASA, were not out to toot their horns.

Henson was fortunate enough to talk to Katherine Johnson, who is 98 years old.

“I kept asking her: ‘what was it like? You had all the obstacles stacked against you.’ And she just said it was what it was. It’s just how things were. I just went to work every day,’” Henson said. “And I thought, wow, what a strong approach. Because you can sit and complain about how bad things are, but what is that accomplishing?”

“The fact is that these ladies did not complain. They just got up every day and fought the good fight. And now we have a space program.”

Spencer, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan, agreed. “They didn’t look externally for that validation. They knew that their contributions would be a part of something greater than themselves.”

Monae plays Mary Jackson, NASA’s first African-American female engineer. She said Jackson’s strong sense of equality and perseverance was inspiring.

“When she was fighting, it wasn’t just for herself, it was for everyone who was told they weren’t good enough because of their gender, because of their race,” Monae said. “And I just hope that whenever any young girl, or when anybody sees this film that they can look to them for hope and inspiration.”

More groups like the National Girls Collaborative Project are working to attract girls to science, technology, engineering and math careers.

According to NGCP, women account for 35 percent of chemists, 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers, 22.7 percent of chemical engineers, 10.7 percent of electrical or computer hardware engineers and 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers.

NASA, a progressive agency then and now, introduced its newest astronaut class last year -- four women and four men.

Spencer praised NASA and also praised astronaut John Glenn, whose Friendship 7 mission was calculated by Katherine Johnson.

He is directly quoted in the movie: “Get the girl to run the numbers. If she says they’re good, they’re good to go.”

“That was not a popular decision at the time,” Spencer said. “And if you can do that, put aside your differences and believe in a person based on what they contributed and how they contributed it – I mean, mankind, we would go beyond the stars again.”

The team hopes “Hidden Figures” will not just inspire younger generations, but also inspire Hollywood to make more movies like it.

“This movie is so new, it’s so fresh, we’ve never heard this story before,” Henson said. “I just hope it leaves Hollywood with a thirst, a hunger to discover more unheard of stories, because you know if this story exists, it’s one of a million. So I just hope this movie hits because that’s when Hollywood pays attention.”

Melfi quoted Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner: “movies have to educate, enlighten and entertain.”

“Lately, they’ve just entertained,” Melfi said. “But you have to educate, and you have to enlighten people. That’s what ‘Hidden Figures’ is about. And spread the word, because money talks and ticket sales matter.”

"Hidden Figures," a 20th Century Fox film, opened in limited release on Dec. 25, and everywhere Jan. 6.