‘Hidden Figures’ brings NASA’s overlooked black pioneers to light

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Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), flanked by fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), meet the man they helped send into orbit, John Glenn (Glen Powell) in HIDDEN FIGURES. Photo by Hopper Stone

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ALISON STEWART: Finally tonight: A movie opening widely this weekend tells a little known piece of history about the history of the early days of spaceflight and the crucial role played behind the scenes by African-American women who acted as mathematicians and engineers.

The film is called “Hidden Figures.” It’s up for a number of honors during this awards season, including two Golden Globes on Sunday night.

Jeffrey Brown has a look at the film and that history.

ACTOR: You have identification on you?

TARAJI P. HENSON, “Katherine Johnson”: We’re just on our way to work.

OCTAVIA SPENCER, “Dorothy Vaughan”: At NASA, sir.

ACTOR: I had no idea they hired.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: There are quite a few women working in the space program.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a story about an agency that reached for the stars, but was mired in racial and gender barriers still prevalent on the ground.

“Hidden Figures” is based on the real-life stories of three black woman who worked in mostly segregated quarters at NASA’s Langley Center in Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s.

The film focuses on efforts to launch the first American, the late John Glenn, into orbit.

ACTOR: Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?

JANELLE MONAE, “Mary Jackson”: I wouldn’t have to. I would already be one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Janelle Monae, the singer-turned-actress, plays Mary Jackson, struggling to get her license as an engineer. Like the others involved, this history was new to Monae.

JANELLE MONAE: I was excited. I said, wow, we’re going to finally be celebrating women not just for their beauty, but for their brilliance. And I got excited. And then once I found out that they indeed were part of the space program at NASA, it became a personal responsibility to me to make sure that no young girl, or no human being, no American, you know, went through life not knowing of these true American heroes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mary Jackson would spend 34 years at NASA and help many who followed.

JANELLE MONAE: She found out that the women and minorities were being paid significantly less than their male white counterparts. And she, along with a couple of other colleagues, took this to NASA. And, you know, NASA being the progressive place and the place that listened, she helped advance more women’s careers and more minorities’ careers in STEM at NASA during that time.

So, I thought that was just so remarkable, and I’m so honored to play such a woman.

TARAJI P. HENSON: This one is important. This one is important on a deep level, because it’s a part of history that has been overlooked. You know, this is more important than anything I have done in my career.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy who worked as a so-called computer. This was just as machine computers were arriving, executing by hand the difficult and tedious equations needed to make the science of spaceflight work.

When she first read the script, Henson saw the story in very personal terms.

TARAJI P. HENSON: I was upset, because a dream had been stolen from me. Had I known these women existed, maybe I would’ve dreamed to be a rocket scientist. But growing up, there was a universal understanding that math and science wasn’t for girls. It was for boys.

And then I felt a great responsibility for all the little girls who thought math or had been told raise a baby, get in the kitchen and cook, or don’t dream to be a rocket scientist.

MAN: Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations.

JEFFREY BROWN: The real Katherine Johnson is still alive, and in 2015 received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

In the film, she is assigned to an all-white department run by Kevin Costner’s character, a composite of three NASA administrators.

KEVIN COSTNER, “Al Harrison”: Would she handle analytic geometry?

ACTRESS: Absolutely. And she speaks.

TARAJI P. HENSON: Yes, sir, I do.

KEVIN COSTNER: Which one?

TARAJI P. HENSON: Both, geometry and speaking.

KEVIN COSTNER: Ruth, get me — you think you can find me the Frenet frame for this data using the Gram-Schmidt…

TARAJI P. HENSON: Orthogonalization algorithm? Yes, sir.

I prefer it over Euclidian coordinates.

KEVIN COSTNER: When you’re done watching it, you can realize that, while the best idea got to the top, how many ideas aren’t getting there? What do we keep down?

My job was to keep NASA going. And I naively was thinking that the best idea was getting to me, that we were somehow above this. But, certainly, we weren’t.

So, you can look at our movie, see where we’re at, and you can come out of the movie and you can turn the mirror around and ask yourself where you think we are.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: What’s not fair is having the responsibility of a supervisor, but not the title or pay.

JEFFREY BROWN: Octavia Spencer received a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role playing Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who became an expert in an early electronic computing language.

In the film ,she’s effectively managing the department of African-American women without being recognized for it.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: Have some respect. Get your damn feet off my dashboard. This isn’t your living room.

I sound like a supervisor, don’t I?

JANELLE MONAE: A mean old, salty one.

TARAJI P. HENSON: With authority, no question.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: It still resonates. There’s unfinished business in our society.

We could talk about gender parity all day, women in positions that aren’t really being recognized financially. And so, no, it didn’t feel like it was an idea whose time had passed.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a human story revolving around complicated math and aeronautics.

Director Theodore Melfi said he took some dramatic liberties, but worked hard to get the science right.

THEODORE MELFI, Director: We took great pride in how much NASA was involved and how much we paid attention to what they had to say. They read script draft after script draft, pored through every single line in the movie. I was — I’m very proud of the fact that NASA says they’re very proud how legitimate it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: The music, too, references the era, but it’s all new, written by superstar musician and producer Pharrell Williams, who grew up in this part of Virginia and felt a personal connection to the subject.

PHARRELL WILLIAMS, Producer/Composer: Space and NASA, two subjects that I have been obsessed with since I was a child. I used to stare out of the windowpane at the stars every night, every night.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thinking?

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t understand it. I used to ask my mom all the time, you know, what are the stars? How many are there? How far does the black part go?

JEFFREY BROWN: Pharrell Williams is also one of the film’s producers. And it’s an important one to him.

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: Oh, man, the success in this film is when young girls, no matter what color, can receive this message beyond the suppression that they endure everyday, to see that they can do anything that they want, including science, including technology, engineering and math. That’s like — that’s the success.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new film comes in the year following the Oscars-so-white controversy at the Academy Awards, in which no people of color were nominated in leading or supporting roles.

Does one film make a big difference? Or what do you think has to happen within the world you work in?

TARAJI P. HENSON: Just got to keep working.

OCTAVIA SPENCER: Yes.

And I think the emphasis is placed in the wrong spot. The Academy is at the very end of the whole cycle of the year and how movies get made. I think what people fail to understand is, it’s not the Oscars. It’s the decision-makers who green-light movies. That’s what needs to change.

TARAJI P. HENSON: So, it just goes to show, we still have work to do. I’m not going to complain about it. I see the issue. What am I going to keep doing? Leading movies. You’re not going to ignore me. I’m not going anywhere, right, Kevin?

(LAUGHTER)

TARAJI P. HENSON: Kevin’s putting me in his next movie.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Hidden Figures” opens nationwide this weekend.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not one to miss.

Learn more about the NASA heroes of “Hidden Figures” and the discrimination they faced on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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