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A love of science — and an eye-opening realization — play roles in 'Hidden Figures'

A love of science — and an eye-opening realization — play roles in 'Hidden Figures'
Writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (who also directed) took different paths to joining on "Hidden Figures." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

"Hidden Figures" earned three Oscar nominations — for best picture, supporting actress and adapted screenplay. The film was co-written by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi. Here, the two describe their experiences with the film, both separately and again together.

Allison Schroeder

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In high school, I was selected for NASA's Math & Science program. I'd hop on the yellow school bus and head up to Cape Canaveral. One day, they walked us down a long hallway to an unmarked door: "Whatever you do, do not touch the heat tiles or your parents will be charged $10,000." Before we could understand the warning, we were ushered into a hangar and there was the Space Shuttle suspended just above our heads. It was awe-inspiring. All of us quickly shoved our hands into our pockets, terrified of the consequences.

Smiling at our respectful fear, the NASA scientists let us climb up the ladder to look inside. They let us stand on the launchpad. They let us touch the experiments being loaded into the payload bay. They let us be one of them.

Allison Schroeder
Allison Schroeder (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

I knew I had to be a part of this project. How could these women’s stories not be in our history books?"


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When I left NASA to continue my studies in math and science, that wasn't always the case. I was often the only woman in the room. And so, years later, when film producer Donna Gigliotti sent me Margot Lee Shetterly's book proposal for "Hidden Figures," I knew I had to be a part of this project. How could these women's stories not be in our history books? How could little girls not know of the pioneers before them?

For Ted and me, Katherine Johnson [played by Taraji P. Henson in the film] was always the spine of the story. John Glenn really did request: "Get the girl to run the numbers. If she says they're good, I'm ready to go."  So our climax was clear, because nothing we dreamed up would ever be better than that moment of truth.

But Katherine, now 98, had one request: that the script not be just about her, but the other women she worked with as well. Because for Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, it was always a team effort.

A trailer for "Hidden Figures," starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer.

Theodore Melfi

I grew up in Brooklyn, in what I now know was poverty.  Sharing a tiny bedroom with my two brothers, eating government cheese and passing down sneakers until they were unpassable … I simply thought the whole world lived as such, especially in pre-gentrified Williamsburg of the 1980s.

After a tumultuous 20-year marriage, my father up and left one day, leaving my mother to raise three boys without the means to do so.  And yet somehow she did.  At the age of 50, she enrolled in nursing school and became a nurse and worked countless overtime hours and weekend shifts just to give us a fighting chance.

I say this to say, I never thought for a moment I was privileged.  Quite the opposite actually.  But I am. The journey of making "Hidden Figures" has shown me the automatic privilege that all white men are afforded in America in 2017 and in any and every year before that.

This became crystal clear to me while I was traveling with actress Octavia Spencer and her stylist Val Noble.  We were returning to the States from a screening of the film in London and we stopped in the first class lounge at Heathrow Airport. Octavia and Val sat down on a couch and I left to buy lipstick for a friend at the duty-free shop.

When I returned, a half an hour later, Octavia and Val were in the exact same spot. I noticed they had not been served. Nothing. No coffee, no tea, nothing. The moment I arrived at the couch, a server waltzed right up to me and asked, "May I get you something, sir?"  It was then that I noticed the looks on Octavia's and Val's faces: sadness crossed with familiarity.  And Octavia said two words. Two words I will never forget for the rest of my life, "You see?"

Writer-director Theodore Melfi
Writer-director Theodore Melfi (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

'Hidden Figures' is no longer just a movie for me. It’s a mission."


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And I saw. In that relatively ordinary moment, I saw my privilege.  I saw their disadvantage. I saw endless years of bias and unfairness and mistreatment and suffering. Octavia Spencer can't get a cup of coffee. I can. Period.

And so "Hidden Figures" is no longer just a movie for me.  It's a mission.

Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

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We pored over every word in the screenplay for "Hidden Figures." It was important to us on so many levels. Important to show kids of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds the power they possess with their intellect, imagination and perseverance. Important for single moms to see Katherine Johnson raise three girls while working in the most pressurized think tank in the world.  And important for white males to understand their privilege and see what true leadership looks like: the meritocracy of NASA.

As flawed as that time in America's history was, NASA's white male management conceded and let black women and white women work at the highest levels in engineering and math. The mission superseded all. And that's the moral of the story and the mantra we need to be reminded of in 2017. As Kevin Costner's character says in the film, "We all get to the peak together or we don't get there at all."

As writers, we spend endless hours searching for words, phrases, that perfect scene that will move a reader or touch an audience.  But the truth is … "Hidden Figures" can be boiled down to two tiny words. Those two simple words uttered by Octavia Spencer in an airport lounge: "You see?"  It's time for us all to "see."

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