Eye on Film: Taraji P. Henson And Octavia Spencer Talk Hidden Figures

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, the decades that brought Star Wars to the big screen and “Battlestar Galactica” to prime time television, gave me a profound love for NASA and the United States space program. Though barely out of the toddler stage, it was so easy for me to project myself into a distant future in which science and rational thought pushed humanity to the very boundaries of its Earthly cradle.

Stories of John Glenn in orbit and Neil Armstrong’s eternal footprint in lunar soil were like bedtime stories to me. Little did I know at the time that both John Glenn’s mission, and the lunar landing, were all made possible by black women. Even mentioning this historic fact aloud now sounds like some sort of hotep conspiracy theory, but it’s 100 percent factual!

Though I would learn of the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson later on, it wasn’t until I screened Hidden Figures that the entire picture came into view. Based upon the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures takes the viewer beyond black and white photos and into the daily lives of three forgotten American heroes.

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(Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)

Recently, The Shadow League was in the house during a Q&A session with stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer to discuss what measures were taken to assure historic accuracy, how they came to know the women they were playing, and why these selfless women are actually heroes.

“As soon as I signed on to the project, as I got the script I asked (director) Ted Melfi is she still alive. He said yes and I said I had to meet her immediately,” said Taraji. “At the time she was 97. So, I fly down with Ted and her daughters come out. She had three daughters and two of them are still alive. They were like ‘Oh my God, we’re so happy they got you to play out mother.’ And I’m like ‘No pressure.’ So I sit and wait for her, sitting there it’s as if you’re waiting for the queen. That’s how it felt. And when she came I was like ‘(gasp) I am in the presence of a real life superhero.’ And I guess one of the biggest things I take away from her is her humility. When you talk about superheroes, they’re selfless. They don’t think about themselves. They put humanity before themselves.”

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(Photo Credit: People)

Because the story takes place in the ’60s, many may automatically feel that the film will be heavy with racial animus and outward aggression. Similarly, Henson says she initially thought Ms. Johnson would have many horror stories to tell and was somewhat surprised when she did not.

“When I sat down and talked to her I was like ‘How did you do it? I’m sure it was misogynistic, I’m sure you got called the n-word’, and she was like ‘Well, you know, it just was the way it was. I just did my job.’ She was so humble. She was always like ‘We’ and in my mind I’m like ‘No, Katherine, in my mind it was you. It was your mind alone that got John Glenn to orbit the Earth.’ He didn’t say ‘Go get so-and-so, and so-and-so. He said ‘Go get that smart girl.’ So, the fact that she sees the ‘we’ in ‘I’ blew me away. And, her passion for math. The way that I respond when people ask questions about acting, her eyes dance when she talks about that. How she wanted people to fall in love with numbers the way she did. If i had a teacher like that I could have been a rocket scientist. Nobody ever said to me ‘You can’t do math because you’re a girl’, but there was an understanding. You grew up as a girl thinking ‘Oh, math and science is for boys.’ Somebody lied to me because this woman exists, all of these women existed. That, to me, is what made it my mission to do this one. Because I didn’t want another girl to grow up believing the myth and the lie.”

Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer plays the role of human computer turned computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn. She told the gathered press of how she came to the role and what steps she took to ensure accuracy.

“For me, it was a very different process. She is no longer with us, but her family and her legacy remains. I told Ted I wanted to be a part of it early on. From the time I heard about the role to the time I found out I was going to be in the movie, it was a three week period. There was very little time. As actors, for me I need about six weeks. So, I started panicking. I thought I should Google to find out as much information about Dorothy as possible, and there was very little.”

“Now, you can do a Google search on her a you’ll find a bunch of stuff referring to Margot’s book. We got to see NASA archives, which I got a lot of that, and a bunch of stuff referring me back to the film. It is important to get it right. It is important to learn what you can about the person in the film so that you can do sort of this mimicry. It was wonderful because Ted got us a lot of the archival footage from NASA. The research part was integral, but this is the first time these women are being introduced to the world this way. There are enough negative images of black women out there and I did not want to portray her as any stereotype. I wanted to make sure her integrity was preserved.”

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In the film’s opening scene, the three protagonists are stranded alongside a road and are accosted by a police officer who initially has a negative vibe about him. However, that soon changes when he realizes these women are working to help win the space race for America over the Soviet Union. Both Spencer and Henson explain why the dramatization was so important to them.

“I think the opening scene, for me, is a wonderful metaphor of what was to come in their lives. The love, fidelity and camaraderie that they had with each other as friends. But it was a twisting road that they had to navigate and negotiate in a very interesting way and I think Ted did a brilliant job,” said Spencer.

Taraji described it in her signature, animated manner. “You could feel the audience brace themselves when the cop arrives. The black people were like ‘Ooooh, boy!’ What’s beautiful about that scene is that you see that man unlearn racism right before your very eyes. It proves that your perception can change in a manner of minutes. He literally learned that these women’s lives mattered to the great space race. So, that negativity that he was about to spew on them shifted in the blink of an eye. And if we all get, as a human race, back to some goal that we could all focus on I think the world we be more balanced.”

Hidden Figures stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Mahershala Ali and many others. The film hasn’t even been released yet, but has critics buzzing. You can check it out in select cities on Christmas Day, nationwide on January 6.

Stay tuned to The Shadow League for more coverage on this film.

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