Movie awards season may still be in the question mark stage, but “Hidden Figures” already owns the Who Knew? trophy of the year.
“The truth is that I thought it was historical fiction,” says Octavia Spencer, who with Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe play three of the many African American math whizzes – Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson, respectively – who performed vital work for NASA in the early days of the space race with the Soviet Union. “I had just done ‘The Help,’ and that was historical fiction. There have been so many accounts of the space race, but very little attention has been paid to these women.”
“I didn’t know about them,” adds Kevin Costner, who plays the film’s fictionalized composite figure, Al Harrison, who heads the NASA division that’s trying to figure out how to put John Glenn into orbit. It’s he who discovers that Johnson, who’s been sent over from the other side of the research campus where both black and white women compute figures all day (in separate, segregated rooms), has the right stuff to work it all out.
“I didn’t even know that people were referred to as computers long before we had computers,” Costner adds about how things were back in the early 1960s.
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Being called computers was the least of the indignities the “Hidden Figures” principals endured during the last gasp of the Jim Crow South. Vaughan, a mechanical engineer who could disassemble and reassemble a car, was NASA’s first black manager and in charge of the African Americans’ computing room but constantly passed over for title and pay-grade promotions by her high-hatting boss (played by Kirsten Dunst in the film).
Soon after math genius Johnson transferred to Harrison’s all-white male operation, she realized that there were no “colored” bathrooms in that building. When nature called, she had to hurry to the other side of the sprawling facility to use the one designated for Vaughan’s group until, in the movie anyway, Harrison found out exactly why he couldn’t find her several times a day.
Jackson impressed the engineers working on Glenn’s capsule so much that they longed for her to join their team. But she needed an engineering degree to do that and had to petition the Virginia courts to allow her to take the segregated university-level classes that were required. She succeeded and became NASA’s first black female aerospace engineer.
When she was exposed to the screenplay that Allison Schroeder and director Ted Melfi (“St. Vincent”) adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book, Spencer wasn’t just surprised.
“I was angry, at first, that we didn’t know about these women, black and white,” says the Oscar-winning (and currently Golden Globe-nominated) actress. “But then, when you put it in context, NASA was much more progressive than the rest of our society because they did integrate the workplace, they did allow black engineers to work alongside their white counterparts. Russia was beating us to space, there was a need to know what was going on up there, and necessity is the mother of all invention. So, for me, the first emotion was anger, but then the second emotion is pride and wanting to be a part of the telling of their story.”
Costner liked the story, too, but initially declined to take the Harrison role. Something about the character wasn’t working for him, and it didn’t until Melfi confided that he hadn’t secured the life story rights to the three NASA managers, so he’d blended them all into a not-quite-convincingly single guy. So they worked on building the no-nonsense, get-the-job-done Harrison’s own dawning out-of-necessity social consciousness.
“Hopefully, we got the character smooth and right, had the right amount of conflict and, even, disappointment in himself,” Costner says. “Like he didn’t catch onto what was going on in the workplace, but that his disappointment when he did wasn’t just directed toward others like holier-than-thou, but he was a little disappointed in his obliviousness.”
That results in several cheer-from-the-audience moments, perhaps most prominently when a fed-up Harrison knocks down the “colored only” bathroom sign in front of all the black and white computer women and essentially declares No More.
Spencer, who’d previously worked with Costner in the more intimate racial drama “Black or White,” describes shooting that scene.
“The very first take where he’s swingin’ that crowbar, when he tore that sign down and was delivering that speech, it was so powerful that everybody just erupted into applause,” she recalls. “We love Kevin.”
It’s a vital piece of the film, whether or not it ever really happened. But what Dorothy Vaughan did was essential. One day, a big strange device from IBM was installed in the computers’ building. The slide-rule guys couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so Vaughan decided she would learn how.
“She was a visionary,” Spencer states. “She saw that the only way to grow at NASA was to be indispensable. All of that’s true. She figured out the IBM, how to make it work, then taught herself to program it and then taught the other women. She became a specialist in Fortran and authored and co-authored several books about it with other women in the program. So she definitely was a woman of her time and before her time, in that she just had a clear eye to the future. And she was a woman who promoted other women and a sense of community and excellence.”
Don’t ask Spencer to fix your laptop, though.
“I was proficient at math, but this is rocket science,” she chuckles about her preparation for the role. “Not very many people will have to understand it or apply it in their lives, and I can tell you I won’t. But we really focused more on the mechanical and engineering aspects of who Dorothy was. I worked with an IBM consultant just to make sure I could understand the basic inner workings of the motherboard and how to connect all the wires so that it was believable. I had never, ever done that and probably won’t do it again.”
Costner, who invests a lot in technology, didn’t feel a need to learn rocket science for his part.
“I was looking to represent NASA, about how we get there,” he says. “It was really all about standing and delivering.
“I have startup companies that deal with engineers and scientists, and they’re very, very different. I’ve been in a lot of meetings that I wasn’t sure went well or not until I walked out and they told me.
“So what I was able to bring to the part was knowing that, very rarely, engineers and scientists also have interpersonal skills. I’ve had to tell some of my scientists to go home and take a shower because they’ve been there for three days.”
Costner grew up in Compton during the height of the civil rights movement. That’s also when “Hidden Figures” takes place, and although he’s made a number of significant historical movies in his career, this one feels particularly special.
“Ted’s done an interesting dance with this,” he says of the film’s director, who is white. “He’s taken a story about women in the workplace, overlaid it with one about black women in the workplace, and overlaid that with the 1960s. That’s a nice trick, and that’s a hard trick, too.”
And the movie about racial equality, supersmart women and the great things about science isn’t just a historical piece today, when all of those things still seem imperiled.
“It definitely has relevance socially,” Spencer says of the film. “Everything is cyclical, I think, especially if the old business hasn’t truly been addressed, it will continue to be a part of the conversation and social strife. But what’s wonderful about ‘Hidden Figures’ is the positive element of that. It was an extremely tumultuous time, one of the most tumultuous times in our nation’s history. And at that time, with all of the adversity, you had these women who didn’t even have the right to vote contributing to science, technology, engineering and math, and advancing our space program, which was in its infancy. I think it speaks a lot to what we can do when we set aside our differences.”