‘Hidden Figures’ team sees its film set in the past as a sign of hope for the future

"Hidden Figures" director Theodore Melfi, was joined by the women of the cast -- Octavia Spencer, left, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe -- to talk about the film's effect.
“Hidden Figures” director Theodore Melfi, was joined by the women of the cast -- Octavia Spencer, left, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe -- to talk about the film’s effect.
(Joshua Roberts / For The Times)

Without black women in the space program coming up with answers that had eluded the traditional white patriarchy of the 1960s, the U.S. might never have made it to the moon. That’s the fact-based story of “Hidden Figures,” but its moral easily parallels the diversity issues for which Hollywood recently has been taken to task. Director Theodore Melfi and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe recently talked with The Envelope ahead of the White House screening of the film to discuss diversity, dreams and deciding not to panic.

First, I was surprised about the story of “Hidden Figures,” and then I got angry that it had been ignored all these years. How much of that mirrors your experience with learning about the film’s subjects?

Henson: I felt like a dream had been stolen from me. If I had known about these women, who knows? I might be a rocket scientist. I just thought: I don’t want another little girl to be misguided by this myth.

Monáe: These women are American heroes. For us not to know about their contributions is appalling.


Spencer: When society disregards the contributions of any people, it reflects badly. When you know their contributions to the space race, to STEM — how different would the dreams of a whole generation have been?

Monáe: Millennials are not having it, this next generation. The face of feminism is changing. This movie should serve as an example of what we can achieve when we come together and put aside the “isms” — racism, classism.


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

Ted, you dropped out of doing the next “Spider-Man” film to take on “Hidden Figures.” Why did you feel you could do it justice?


Melfi: I never felt I could do it justice. I was scared to death of it. It’s a huge undertaking to try and get it right. I just dove in, and I am a feminist. Everything about it affected my heart.

Henson: This man is an artist the way I’m an artist. The way [costar] Kevin Costner is an artist. That man doesn’t have to be No. 4 on the call sheet. But their hearts tugged and we all needed each other. These black women needed these white men to put this incredible story together, just like those astronauts needed those women. That’s life.

It’s not a wholly dramatic film. Ted, how important was it to maintain a light tone in places?

Melfi: If you don’t have comedy in a movie, you don’t have a movie. Life is laughter.


Henson: Black people, we’ve had to learn to laugh through our pain. It’s important that you laugh and make jokes about how silly racism is.

Melfi: If you don’t infuse humor into a subject matter, no matter how dark, the audience can’t accept the message of a film. It closes them down. Humor can open them up. And then they get the hard lessons — segregated bathrooms, segregated water fountains, segregated coffee pots.

Monáe: Pill in the applesauce.

After last year’s #OscarsSoWhite, “Hidden Figures” is a step in the right direction, as is Monáe’s other movie, “Moonlight.” But has anything changed permanently?


Melfi: None of these films is reactionary. Hollywood is not that fast. I think it was this funky cycle we were in. Racism exists in statements like, “a black film is not going to sell overseas.” That’s been dispelled a million times, and they still lean on that.

Henson: There was a time when Whoopi Goldberg was the highest-paid actor in the game, and she’s a woman. I’ve been told that they don’t “get” me. But you’re gon’ get me. You told me I wouldn’t sell overseas and [“Empire’s”] Cookie is a phenomenon. So there goes that myth. I had an interesting conversation with Laurence Fishburne at one of the awards shows and I said, “Isn’t this beautiful? Everybody’s working” and he said, “Pay attention: It happens every seven years.”

Spencer: Diversity doesn’t mean black or white. Diversity means when you look at your TV you’re going to see a woman my size, a woman looking like these two ladies, all ages, people with disabilities, various gender and transgenders.


Octavia Spencer likes to research her roles, but there wasn’t much on file about her “Hidden Figures” character, Dorothy Vaughan.


So is this something you have to be actively on top of all the time to avoid the next cyclical lull?

Melfi: You have a responsibility to make inclusion a daily thought, so we can get rid of the word “inclusion.” Thirty-five percent of our crew [on this film] is female. Our cinematographer is female — she has a light meter in one hand and red lipstick in another.

Spencer: I now have the agency so that when I’m in a room of male executives, I say, “This is what I’m going to need. I need to have the female perspective in this.” I will forever champion women and other minorities getting key positions in my projects.

Monáe: Just like at NASA, if we hadn’t had diverse, brilliant minds coming together to figure out solutions to problems, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation.


How do we avoid letting stories like this again fall onto a back burner, particularly as we head into this particular new presidential cycle?

Melfi: I’m going to say something very controversial: I think it’s going to be a great four years. We’re going to have to fight. We’ll have four years of complete transparency.

Henson: This is what I want: Don’t panic, don’t freak, don’t go on about how it’s going to be horrible. It’s about to be great. This movie reminds us of how great we can be if we stick together. The majority of us were on the right side of history. This just shows we’ve got a little more to do. We’ve got to work.

Melfi: You’ve got to drive into the center of the storm. I’d love to get President-elect Trump to see the film.


Spencer: We’ll let you do that.

Melfi: I think he’d tweet about it.