We get to know the pioneering women of Hidden Figures

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae star in Hidden Figures. (Getty Images)
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae star in Hidden Figures. (Getty Images)

Atlanta - The uplifting and compelling new film Hidden Figures relates the untold story of three brilliant women who stood strong in the face of discrimination, achieved beyond all expectation and ultimately paved the way for future generations. 

Emmy winner Taraji P. Henson leads a stellar cast as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician working at NASA in the early 1960s. Johnson and her accomplished friends, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winning actress Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson (Grammy nominated Janelle Monae), were instrumental in helping America to win the space race.

The stars of the film sat down on the set in Atlanta with key filmmakers to discuss the incredible story of three pioneering women.

Inspired by true events, the film is based in part on Margot Lee Shetterly’s upcoming book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.

The power and poignancy of the film lies in its humanity, in the women’s personal journeys. At its core, it is about sisterhood, friendship and family. While the three women are engaged in groundbreaking work at NASA, we discover who they are at home and the personal challenges they faced.

The mathematician 

“I thought the story was beautiful,” says Taraji P. Henson (the star of TV’s Empire), who plays Johnson, in a break from filming at the historic Morehouse College in Atlanta. “We've seen women play politicians, lawyers and doctors in films. I don't think I've ever seen a black female scientist or mathematician, so I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to give young girls something else to aspire to.’”

Preparing for the part, Henson actually met Johnson, who is now 97 and last year received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. “She is brilliant and the one thing that really stood out to me is that there's a quiet strength in her. She is reserved. Her brain is always working so she doesn't do a lot of talking and when she does speak, she has something to say,” says the actress, admitting that math is not her own strong suit!

The computer wiz

Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role in The Help, is in charge of the black computers. “These women were mothers and teachers and leaders; they wanted better lives for their kids. They are great role models. Dorothy, who had six children, does the work of a supervisor without the pay or the title and she is a self-starter.”

At the time, the first electronic IBM computer had been introduced at NASA. Vaughan was one of the few who understood the significance of the computer for the future and how coding was going to be important. “Dorothy learned how to program the IBM computer before there were programmers, so this is a woman who's definitely an initiator,” says Spencer about her pioneering character.

The firecracker

The third member of the trio, Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae in her first major film role) a former teacher, is a dynamic and incredibly smart young woman who finds herself in an untenable position, fighting to win a place at the school and university she needs to attend, in order to get the qualifications which will enable her to work as an engineer. Rebellious, tenacious and fearless, married to a freedom fighter, Levi Jackson, she makes history by battling for her rights, smashing protocol and becoming the first woman of any colour to be an engineer at NASA.  

“She is passionate. She's a firecracker.  She's very honest, she's smart and she knows her worth,” says Monae. “She's determined to achieve her goal for women, for her family and for minorities. She went up against a lot of obstacles. During that time (most) women were in the house cooking grits, raising kids and she had to deal with her husband telling her ‘you can never be an engineer, stop being irrational.’ Katherine and Dorothy were older and Mary was a part of that new generation of blacks who were protesting,” says Monae. “They were saying: ‘We should be using the same restrooms as whites.’ She wanted change and she wanted justice.”

Other cast members include Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons.

The film was directed by Ted Melfi and is accompanied with a powerful score from multiple Grammy winning musician, Pharrell William.