As Dorothy Vaughan in Theodore Melfi’s , Octavia Spencer joins a cast of extraordinary characters working at NASA in the 1960s during the height of segregation and the struggle for civil rights. Along with Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and an entire team of gifted black women mathematicians, Vaughan was instrumental in helping perform the complex calculations necessary to launch astronauts into the cosmos.
And yet Hidden Figures is the first movie to tell these women’s stories – based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, who extracted this real history from the NASA archives. As artists engage in an urgent discussion about the absence of diverse stories from the big screen, Hidden Figures reveals the remarkable resilience of a group of women whose voices demand to be heard.
My first thought, on hearing about this movie, was that these stories were too essential to have never been heard before. Did you have a similar reaction?
I totally thought it was a work of fiction. When history obscured these women’s contributions, they were completely occluded from everything. You could go to NASA and find mentions in the archives, but Google it—which is what I did when I heard about it—and you didn’t find anything. I thought it was like The Help—historical fiction.
And then I was a little angry when I realized it was true. I felt compelled to be a part of it, because it was an idea whose time had come to be told. It was disbelief, and then a great sense of pride afterwards.
And no small amount of responsibility.
Whenever you play anyone who’s a real person, you have to start with the internet and Googling, and trying to figure out every detail about their lives, every morsel, and there is a dearth of material, quite honestly. I found an obituary for Dorothy Vaughan and a couple of thumbnail photographs, and I started to have a panic attack, because that is not enough. And I didn’t want to be an intrusion with the family.
Thank God for Ted Melfi and Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. Margot had already done all of this extensive research. Ted sent us the early chapters, and only the chapters that corresponded with the characters. Margot does this wonderful thing of laying the groundwork of who these women are, so that by the time I read that, and I started piecing together the little information that I found, I felt pretty secure in what I had to do to bring her to life.
Her mathematical prowess is not something that I have. Very few people have it, actually. And what I did find is that Dorothy and Katherine [Jackson] were considered polymaths, and that their knowledge was extensive in many fields of mathematics, and their understanding and their acumen and aptitude was across many mathematical fields. Those aren’t ordinary women; those are extraordinary women to begin with.
You add, onto the extraordinary work, the fact that they were living in an era of segregation.
And now you understand how I feel, and how people of color have felt throughout time. For me to not go to the dark side of things, I have to not judge, because you can’t play a character that you judge, and you have to deal with the circumstances of the time. Being a contemporary woman playing this extraordinary woman—this visionary—dropped into the time capsule of everyday segregation, de facto misogyny, blatant racism, and the fact that they hadn’t even obtained their right to vote, and were considered second-class citizens by society…
They didn’t consider themselves second-class citizens; they knew what and who they were, so in spite of all of that, they were able to take our men to space and back. That is what keeps me grounded at this hour, given what’s going on in our country. If you aren’t inspired by that, there’s something wrong with you. They knew what they were capable of, they knew what their country was capable of, and they were at the forefront of something amazing. I don’t know if they really understood what their impact would be, but they were a part of something greater than themselves, and that is what’s inspiring.
There’s something really, really special about that time in our history, aside from the upheaval that was going on in our society as the civil rights movement was happening. What’s special about NASA, and about the character that Kevin Costner played, is that he was focused on the science, and within his world, it didn’t matter if you wore skirts, it didn’t matter if your skin was black or white, it was about what could you contribute. And for those women, that had to be refreshing when the steps were made to integrate the bathrooms, even though it was de jure law to keep them segregated. But not within NASA, and so there’s that beautiful, refreshing moment that these women were seen as invaluable people because of their minds, and the scope of their contributions.
So now you contrast that with the urgent conversation we’re having in the arts today. This year has offered an eclectic mix of movies that some have argued addressed #OscarsSoWhite.
I think that’s what you guys are thinking, but when you know how movies are made, the explosion of films with people of color is not a reaction to #OscarsSoWhite.
I know, and I don’t mean to say that. But when I see a movie like Hidden Figures, I hope that it’s a sign that these kinds of stories won’t be ignored anymore.
I know that I have projects coming up, and I know that Viola [Davis] and Taraji [P. Henson] have projects coming up. I know Idris Elba is headlining a few things, and I hope Mahershala Ali and André Holland and David Oyelowo have things coming up. And also, you know, I’m taking a more active role in producing, and so is Viola. I can’t see this year being an isolated thing, but then, I thought Hillary was going to be president, so I can’t tell you for sure.
The tide has changed, but we still have a ways to go, because they still aren’t inclined to greenlight a movie that’s starring a person of color, without a long list of white box-office people. Are we where we should be? No. We have some ground still to cover, but I’m optimistic because of the year we’re having.
It’s an under-served audience, so what I’m hoping is they stop spending a hundred million dollars on things, and then not having enough money to fund movies like this, because then, as women, we start having to say, “Here’s what you’re going to have to do with your purchasing power: Stop going to see these movies that they’re paying hundreds of millions of dollars for that are failing, and put your money behind projects that show a more diverse cast, in front of and behind the scenes.”
And when people say “diversity in Hollywood” they assume “black,” but diversity is all shapes and sizes, varying ages, varying backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, varying degrees of education, impoverished and elite. We see a lot of the elite, but very little of the impoverished that isn’t stereotypical. Moonlight is one of the few stories that cover what it’s like for the black, gay experience. Lion, that’s diverse, that’s out there now. There’s so many different perspectives and interesting stories out there. There are many, many meanings of diversity to me. I want to see more Latin stories told. More Asian stories.
I mean, when I look at the people that are underrepresented in the film industry, I’ve got to tell you, if I look down a list of characters on a film, and it doesn’t have gay, African-American or Latin characters, I’m probably not going to spend my money on the ticket. I’m going to be real honest with you. I see enough of the homogeneity, and I don’t need to support it with my dollar. And when we stop supporting things with our dollars that don’t represent all of us, then you’ll see an explosion of diversity. Art is about reaching people that you wouldn’t normally reach. It’s about bringing us together.
In March you star in The Shack, from British director Stuart Hazeldine. What was that experience like?
Oh man, I love Stuart, and The Shack is another film, for me, with a positive message. I’m happy about these positive messages that the films that I’m associated with this year will have; the impact. If Hidden Figures is going to enlighten and inspire, I think The Shack will be a healing film, so I’m really excited about the work that’s getting out there this year.