Atlanta R&B artist and actress Janelle Monae was thrilled when she first read the script for “Hidden Figures.” Then, she was crestfallen for a moment.
The character she was reading for, Mary Jackson, was complex and compelling. A skilled mathematician and aerospace engineer, Jackson worked alongside her equally brilliant friends, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, who, like other African-American women in the 1960s, were employed in a segregated wing of NASA as the United States raced to catch up with the Soviet Union’s outer space ambitions.
“When I was reading the script, I was just excited that someone was portraying an African-American woman in a different light — not just a maid,” Monae said. She paused for a second and added, “I thought it was fiction.”
Her experience underscores the title of the movie, starring Taraji P. Henson as Johnson and Octavia Spencer as Vaughan. Spencer, who earned an Oscar for her role as a maid in “The Help,” has been nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of best performance by an actress in a supporting role in a motion picture for the film. The “Hidden Figures” soundtrack, composed by Pharrell Williams along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, is up for a best original score Golden Globe.
The movie, due out on Christmas Day, is set in Hampton, Va., but was filmed in metro Atlanta, at locations including downtown Canton, East Point and the Morehouse College campus. It has racked up a slew of award nominations, including the Screen Actors Guild and NAACP Image Awards, and is generating Oscar buzz. The story of how it came together is nearly as compelling as the movie itself.
“Our family grew up in Hampton,” said Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the nonfiction book on which the movie is based. “We knew a lot of the people in the community who worked at NASA. It was sort of no big deal. In Hampton, there is NASA, there are the shipyards, the military. It was just kind of a normal thing that a lot of those people were African-American, and a lot were women, and some were both.”
Shetterly studied finance at the University of Virginia and worked on Wall Street for a while before transitioning to various internet media projects. She and her husband were living in Mexico, where they ran an English language magazine, when the idea for the book blossomed during a trip back home several years ago. Talk turned to the “computers,” as the women were known back then, whose meticulous calculations were vital in sending astronaut John Glenn, who died in early December at age 95, into orbit.
“How did I not know about this?” Shetterly recalled wondering. “My mom was like, ‘Hey, let’s call up Katherine Johnson and go over to her house.’ That’s where I heard the name Dorothy Vaughan. (Johnson) said she was the smartest person she ever met. I was like, I need to check out this Dorothy Vaughan, whose name I’d never heard.”
The book and movie projects took off at a joint gallop.
“I was thrilled just to find a publisher,” Shetterly said. Her agent, Mackenzie Brady Watson, not only landed a book deal, but got the material in front of producer Donna Gigliotti, whose cinematic hits have included “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Reader.”
“She called me up and was like, ‘Listen: We are doing this movie.’ I was coming from seeing Katherine Johnson and pulled over in the Food Lion parking lot,” Shetterly recalled. “I was like, ‘What? I don’t have a book yet and you want to option a movie?’”
The rest, as with the book and movie, is history. The movie, awash in critical acclaim, is exhilarating. At an advance screening at the Atlantic Station theater a few weeks ago, the packed audience alternately cried, laughed, applauded and talked back to the screen.
“Shake her hand!” the woman sitting next to me instructed a white male actor during a pivotal scene. Without giving away any spoilers, we can reveal that he did, and our neighbor exulted, “Yes!”
When we interviewed Shetterly (whose sister, Lauren Colley, works at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), she had seen “Hidden Figures” three times already and had two more screenings on the books.
“It means a lot to me to say I love this movie,” she said. “Katherine Johnson does, too, and the families of the other women.”
Vaughan died in 2008, Jackson in 2005.
“I wanted them to have their moment in the sun,” Shetterly said. “This is not a quiet little movie where meek little people have things happen to them. This is a blockbuster Hollywood movie with big charismatic stars front and center. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get when you’re a female lead, particularly a black female lead.”
Like Monae, she’s experienced a range of feelings throughout the process.
“A lot of times, it comes with a mix of emotions: bewilderment, shame. This story’s been hidden from us,” Shetterly said.
“It’s really complicated,” she said. “The work was classified. They weren’t able to talk about it. ‘Loose lips sink ships,’ the Cold War. These women were there. We’re the ones who didn’t see them.”
She’s been gratified by the book and movie’s reception and new opportunities it has created. (For example, her friend, designer Raymond McNeill, is the creative force behind the glamorous dress she wore to a red-carpet screening. Here is the link to his Facebook page.)
Each time she sees the film her book inspired, Shetterly leaves the theater feeling hopeful.
“When you come down to it, it illustrates one of the things we all want to believe about America,” she said. “When you need the right person for the job, you will find them.”