The success of Hidden Figures defies the gravity of Hollywood

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Tara P. Henson in Hidden Figures. Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

We hear a lot of stories about filmmakers struggling for years, sometimes over a decade, to get a film produced. But for Ted Melfi, co-writer and director of Hidden Figures, the planets just seemed to align.

What’s so fascinating about the success of Hidden Figures, written by Ted Melfi and Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Shetterly, is that it’s about all the things Hollywood typically tends to avoid: African-American women,  mathematics, racial segregation and sexism. Melfi himself says he was shocked at how easily the project came together.

“Hidden Figures has all the elements they say don’t touch. I think what happened was, when you put all the elements you’re not supposed to touch in one script, it confuses everyone. Maybe it’s reverse psychology,” he says with a laugh.

No only did everyone he asked to work on the film say yes, it happened at nearly light speed.

“Everyone said ‘yes’ so fast, it was really a strange process. I got the book proposal and first draft of the script from [producer] Donna Gigliotti, I read it over the weekend and I said yes on Monday. I gave the script and the book proposal to [producers] Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin, they read it in a night, said yes the next morning. They got that script to Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000 on a plane coming back from Nicaragua and by the time she landed, she said yes. Everyone felt so compelled by the three women they said it doesn’t really matter if this movie makes money. This is the reason we all got into this business in the first place.”

Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

It may seem strange to hear that anyone in Hollywood would prioritize telling a great story over earning great box office, but that’s exactly what happened – it is just that powerful of a story. One that was written in the pages of history and didn’t need a lot of fictionalizing according to Melfi, just some strategic condensing.

“What you really have to do is hold on to the essence of the characters and the events they went through. John Glenn’s direct quote is ‘Get the girl to run the numbers, if she says they’re good, I’m ready to go,’ and he’s talking about Katherine Johnson. That’s all fact except it took Katherine three days to do those calculations, but in the film it takes 28 seconds, intercut with John Glenn going to lunch – that’s the dramatic version of the truth.”

Speaking of dramatics, Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), launches an incredibly moving monologue that moved many audience members to tears. Her boss, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), asks her why she takes long breaks throughout the day. What he doesn’t realize is that Katherine is forced to use a “colored only” bathroom half a mile from their office.

Kevin Costner in Hidden Figures. Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Katherine turns, Harrison’s on the floor. Katherine freezes.

 

AL HARRISON

Where the hell do you go everyday?

 

KATHERINE

(quietly)

The bathroom, sir.

 

AL HARRISON

The bathroom! The damn bathroom!

 

KATHERINE

Yes, sir. The bathroom.

 

AL HARRISON

For 40 minutes a day!? What do you do in

there!? We are T-minus zero here. I put

a lot of faith in you.

 

Katherine can barely speak. She whispers:

 

KATHERINE

There’s no bathroom for me here.

 

AL HARRISON

There’s no bathroom? What do you mean

there’s no bathroom for you here?

 

Katherine can’t take it anymore. Her voice rises.

 

KATHERINE

There’s no bathroom here. There are no

COLORED bathrooms in this building or ANY

building outside the West Campus. Which

is half a mile away! Did you know that?

I have to walk to Timbuktu just to

relieve myself! And I can’t take one of

the handy bikes. Picture that, with my

uniform: skirt below the knees and my

heels. And don’t get me started about

the “simple pearl necklace” I can’t

afford. Lord knows you don’t pay “the

coloreds enough for that. And I work

like a dog day and night, living on

coffee from a coffee pot half of you

don’t want me to touch! So excuse me if

I have to go to the restroom a few times

a day!

You can hear a pin drop. Katherine takes her purse, personals and walks off. Leaving everyone’s jaws on the ground.

Download Hidden Figures the script here

“That monologue was essentially born out of the frustration of all the colored computers felt at NASA. That exact incident happened to all of them, so we had it come out of Katherine Johnson’s mouth. To us, it’s representing everyone – all the pain, all the frustration that the women felt working there and having to walk to the bathrooms that were half a mile away on that massive campus. Segregation was separate but far from equal. Taraji’s performance was so wonderful. It’s kind of a turning point for her character, once she has that outburst, her trajectory changes. She starts to move in a positive direction.”

Olek Krupa and Janelle Monáe in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo courtesy: Twentieth Century Fox

Maybe the story is so powerful because as a nation, we had change our trajectory if we wanted to get to outer space.

We asked if Melfi himself has any plans to go into space. He laughed and said, “That’s not going to happen for me. I’m going to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.”

Hidden Figures is nominated for three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and has earned over $130 million at the box office to date.

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

8 Replies to "The success of Hidden Figures defies the gravity of Hollywood"

  • comment-avatar
    David Yarbrough February 26, 2017 (6:33 pm)

    A great movie! Congrats to everyone that said, ‘Yes!” More of these please. People are starved for true stories that uplift and enlighten.

  • comment-avatar
    Pauline Hetrick February 26, 2017 (7:15 pm)

    That trailer made me want to see it today!

  • comment-avatar
    Larry Heward March 6, 2017 (6:26 am)

    Saw the film twice. I grew up in those days and watched the NASA lift offs on our old black and white TV like so many others. A Canadian by birth I moved to Arizona in the late 60s and was not really aware of any racial tensions except what I saw on TV. A truly inspiring film, very empowering movie for young women as a whole. This movie should be shown in schools to educate and motivate girls of all cultures. cheers. Continued success.

  • comment-avatar
    Pauline Baird Jones March 6, 2017 (6:52 am)

    This was such a wonderful movie on so many levels. Great job for sure. Wish there were more like it. And more looking past standard Hollywood fare.

  • comment-avatar
    JPerez March 6, 2017 (5:40 pm)

    I earned a master’s in Electrical Engineering and still work in the industry. My third patent is pending and I’ve published ~20 technical articles….there are still few women in both the field of study and the workplace. In school I had a professor say “I feel bad for you minorities, you’ll never find a job.” When I confronted a student and his sponsoring professor about the students inappropriate touching of women the professor said “maybe he likes you.” In one internship I was told I had to wear a dress. I finished my summer work but didn’t accept a position with them. The interview stories are interested but one memorable one ended with “You’re answering everything correct, I don’t know why I’m not going to hire you.” In my current company I’ve been confused several times as a janitor. I dress up even more now but as a result I was asked ‘why do you dress up, are you high maintenance?” Just last year I was asked if I was in documentation. A co-worker told me “You think too much of yourself” to which I said “Of course I do, don’t you.” While things have improved, many elements still exist. I’m always looking for ways to navigate the unspoken aspects. The Hidden Figures book has a quote “women have to think like a man, work like a dog and act like a lady…the acting like a lady is vexing.”

  • comment-avatar
    JPerez March 6, 2017 (5:46 pm)

    Hi Larry, I live in Arizona since the 70’s. The prejudice is alive and well. I could write a book on the experiences starting in grade school when I was put in a lower class because of my last name. I forged a note from my parents saying test my daughter. When I scored a 100% on the test, they still didn’t want to move me to the appropriate class. The examples are endless…even at my local grocery store last week by a man who probably has less education, significantly less income and whose people are more immigrants than my own family history.

  • comment-avatar
    jeff March 7, 2017 (4:18 pm)

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I just finished reading the script and I love it. Looking forward to seeing it.

  • comment-avatar
    hwlliams March 10, 2017 (2:45 am)

    interestingly I’ve seen two interviews with Katherine Johnson where she was clear that the 3 most pivotal scenes in the movie never happened in reality. She said that while there were Whites Only bathrooms at NASA she used the bathrooms she pleased and ignored any complaints from her white colleagues. She also said that the White boss smashing the Whites Only signed never happened. She added that the end scene where she watched Buzz Aldrin land from mission control didn’t happen, either In fact she said that once she turned over her data and proofs that the landing coordinates were accurate she was locked out of mission control and had to watch the landing on a TV with the other Black computers elsewhere on the premises.

    When Theodre Melfi, the White director of Hidden Figures was asked why they strayed so far from Katherine’s story and made up these instances he said—and I quote:

    “You have to show White People doing good things.”

    I’d be curios to know from the screenwriter why they did this. Was the need to prop up white characters really so important that you had to fabricate incidents and characters that ran so fundamentally counter to the real story you were tasked with telling?

    What’s braver—a Black Woman of her own agency and her own dignity ignoring Whites Only signage to conduct her business or a Black Woman having to be rescued by a fictional white character doing a fictional act designed to do nothing but boost his own nobility?

    What’s more compelling—a Black Woman doing her job then being shut out of the spoils and opportunity to enjoy that success equally with her white peers or whitewashing that fact with a fictionalized nicety that never happened in the name of a niceness that didn’t happen?

    I think the story stands as it happened strongest with ego stroking whites as the white director said.\\still a good movie, but I look at it differently now armed with this much info.

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