MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now let's talk about one of the most celebrated chapters in American history, the space race of the 1950s and '60s. The stories of Alan Shepard and John Glenn are well-known, but what about the stories of all the people who worked to get them into space and back. There's a new film out that tells the story of one group of unsung heroines of the space race. The film is "Hidden Figures," and it's in theaters around the country as of this weekend.
Based on a recent nonfiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly, it's the story of the black female mathematicians - or human computers, as they were called - who helped NASA crunch the numbers to safely launch the first Americans into orbit and whose contributions went largely unknown for decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")
MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Jim Johnson) Pastor mentioned you're a computer at NASA. That's pretty heady stuff.
TARAJI P HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) Yes, it is.
ALI: (As Jim Johnson) They let women handle that sort of...
HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) If I were you, I'd quit talking right now.
ALI: (As Jim Johnson) I didn't mean no disrespect.
HENSON: (As Katherine Johnson) I will have you know I was the first negro female student at West Virginia University graduate school. On any given day, I analyze the venometer (ph) levels for air displacement, friction and velocity, and compute over 10,000 calculations by hand. So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it's not because we wear skirts. It's because we wear glasses.
MARTIN: The film focuses on the stories of three women at the heart of the story - Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson - that's who you just heard - Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. I spoke with Octavia Spencer about the film over the weekend, and I asked her if it bothered her that it had taken so long for this story to be told.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Everything happens when it's supposed to. Would I have liked for it to have been told earlier? Absolutely. But the fact that it's being told now at a time when our nation really needs some healing balm - and I think this is a story that anybody can get behind. The time is now for it to be told. It was a bittersweet moment to know that these women went largely unheralded by our society. And it's not just these African-American women. The computers were black and white women at NASA during that short period of time.
MARTIN: Well, let me just play a short clip from the film from your role. Dorothy Vaughan was a leader, but she struggled to get recognition for the work she was actually doing. Let me just play a short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIDDEN FIGURES")
SPENCER: (As Dorothy Vaughan) What's not fair is having the responsibility of a supervisor but not the title or the pay. And watching you two move on - now, don't get me wrong. Any upward movement is movement for us all. It just isn't movement for me.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about her and how you understood her for this role.
SPENCER: Well, Dorothy Vaughan - all of these women were exemplary in their abilities. They were ordinary women with extraordinary talents. And she was really a brilliant mathematician. When she was younger, her father taught her how to disassemble and reassemble a car. And so she took that and applied it to anything electronic. She was a brilliant math mind. And all of these women were polymaths, which means that they are interchangeable within any math discipline. And (laughter) I don't know about you, but the thought of going from trigonometry to calculus just makes me break out in hives. But...
MARTIN: Oh, no, I do that for fun. But anyway...
SPENCER: (Laughter) Well, not me, I'll tell you. I'll do the crossword, not the math problem. And Dorothy was one of those people that, you know, problem-solving was a part of her daily life. She had an analytical mind. And one of her crowning achievements, aside from advocating for the women who worked in her pool of workers at the - in the West Computing Group, which was the African-American computing group - she fixed the IBM.
They could not get it to work. She would sneak into the lab and work on it until it was able to start generating numbers. And once that happened, she realized she had put their whole pool out of work, so she then decided that they had to learn how to program it. So she taught herself how to program the machine and then taught the other women, both black and white.
MARTIN: You know, the film strikes a very warm, positive note. I mean, there's a lot of buzz about it on social media, a lot of people saying, you know, you've got to take your kids, it's kind of a must-see. But there are those who've criticized the film as being soft on the harsh realities of the time. I mean, the indignities that these women did face and that most African-Americans faced in that time period. And I just wonder, what would you say to that?
SPENCER: Well, here's the cold, hard truth. We all know that that was a tumultuous time in our nation's history. And we all know that we're kind of going through this resurgence of that type of mentality in our society right now. And do you think you can change a heart with vinegar or with honey? I don't think it's sugar-coating. I think it's putting these women and their lives at the forefront and what they were dealing with in their lives on a daily basis.
We know that was happening in society. We know that they were fighting for their first-class citizenship. We know that they didn't have the right to vote. But in spite of all that, they did the impossible. They put all of that aside, put their heads down, did the work and let their work speak for itself. I don't think it's downplaying what was happening in society. It's just not making it the forefront because we already know what was happening.
And I think it's wise to do that because we want families to see this. And I don't think that moms, with all that's going on in our society today, would want to put their kids in front of something that will be disheartening rather than uplifting and they still get the same message.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I did want to ask you about - your opinion about something else that's a bit sticky, which is this whole controversy around the gospel minister Kim Burrell, who sings a song on the soundtrack. And it emerges that she gave a sermon that's since gone viral where she expresses her distaste for the LGBT community or with same-sex marriage and so forth. And a number of people - I mean, this has become a big thing on social media.
Now, you criticized Burrell's remarks, tweeting that we're all God's children, equal in his eyes, and hatred isn't the answer. But I'm just wondering, as an artist, how do you think these issues should be navigated going forward?
SPENCER: I can only live in my truth. And I don't subscribe to what Kim Burrell believes. Those are her beliefs, and I can't ask her to change - that's between her and God. I, as a black woman - and I'm a heavy African-American woman, so I have three strikes. People who are overweight face discrimination. African-Americans face discrimination. Women face discrimination and sexism. So I don't have the luxury of not being tolerant of anyone.
I can only be the best version of myself and understand that the only way that we as a people can heal is to understand that the next person's journey may not be your own, but it doesn't mean that you have to marginalize them in any way. I do believe that we're all God's children. I do believe that everyone has something to contribute. That's what I believe. And that's what this film is about. It's about inclusion. I can't speak for what other artists should do. I can only tell you how I live.
MARTIN: Octavia Spencer is an Oscar-winning actress. She was kind enough to join us from Los Angeles. Her latest film, "Hidden Figures," is out now. Octavia Spencer, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SPENCER: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.