“How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here?”
Power to the people!" Taraji P. Henson says. Actually, she shouts this in the back of a chauffeured black car. The actress is headed to New York City's JFK airport en route to Chicago, where, for the next couple of months, she will be taping her hit TV show Empire. But what has her breathless is the news announced mere minutes ago that the Army would stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to explore alternate routes—a victory for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe water protectors and their allies. "That's the best news I've heard all year!" she adds.
That's not hard to believe, because Lawd knows 2016 had been exhausting. It was truly a year of bitter sideswipes: the sudden passing of Prince Rogers Nelson, the back-to-back videotaped police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the utter disgrace that was the presidential election cycle and America's "crowning" of a man whose way of appealing to the Black vote was to ask us, "What do you have to lose?"
If art is considered to be a form of resistance, then Henson's new film, Hidden Figures, could be thought of as a kind of grenade. It recounts the true tale of Katherine Johnson (played by Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe): three brilliant Black women mathematicians who made history and changed the world while working at NASA.
The action centers around Johnson, a math prodigy and mother of three who began working at NASA (then NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in the early 1950's. During that collision of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, the company wanted to recruit Black women with college degrees. Computing (performing mathematical equations and calculations by hand) was women's work, while men with the same qualifications were "junior engineers." Black women mathematicians were called "colored computers."
Still they operated under Jim Crow laws, including segregated bathrooms, working and eating areas, and Black workers had less chance for advancement than their White peers. The advent of the IBM computer was also breathing down their necks, threatening to make the human computers obsolete. None of these barriers, however, could eclipse Johnson's genius. She was assigned to the Space Task Group, where she did the calculations for the trajectories, launch and landing of several historic space missions, including the Friendship 7, for which astronaut John Glenn specifically asked for "the girl" to verify the numbers before liftoff.
"This is a prime example of when opportunity meets preparation," Henson says. "She went to school to be a teacher. Think about that. Then you don't get the accolades [for her contributions at NASA] until you're 98. Think about how deep that is."
Portraying Johnson was important to Henson, not just because the story seemed too good to be true but because it gives Henson, 46, an opportunity to step away from her iconic Empire character, Cookie. "I'm a trained actress," she states. "I can give you anything you want, baby. Just because I talk like I'm that girl from the 'hood does not mean I cannot give you Shakespeare in the Park or Chekhov. I studied the craft."
Henson's confidence notwithstanding, she admits to being intimidated by the math. To portray Johnson, she had to quickly learn and write out complicated calculations, and even installed a chalkboard in her house to practice. "I literally had to just go home, turn everything off, quiet myself and learn it. I crammed it. It scared me, but that's when I knew I was in the right place."
Like many girls of a certain age, Henson had been directed away from STEM-related careers. "When I was growing up, people told me out of their mouths math and science are for boys. I was told that over and over," Henson says. "Like, no one showed me how to fall in love with numbers. If I had a teacher like Mrs. Katherine Johnson, who knows, I might be on the moon."
Here's how Hidden Figures came to be: In 2014, journalist Margot Lee Shetterly of Hampton, Virginia, wrote a 55-page book proposal about the Black women NASA mathematicians and engineers in her Tidewater community. The brief landed in the hands of Oscar-winning producer Donna Gigliotti (Silver Linings Playbook), who promptly bought the rights to the film before the book was written. (Hidden Figures, published by William Morrow, was released last fall.)
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer was the first to sign on to the movie—two years early—thinking the story was historical fiction. "Because if it had happened," she reasoned from an office on the Fox Studios lot, "wouldn't we know about it?" Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams heard about the film and begged to do the soundtrack. Monáe, who was asked to audition, says the role was "preordained." Director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) read the script and took himself out of the running for Spider-Man: Homecoming. "This is a movie that you stop everything you're doing, no matter what you are doing, and you do whatever it takes to get it made," Melfi says.
Spencer portrays Dorothy Vaughan, a Kansas City, Missouri, native who began her career at NASA as a "computer" and was eventually named supervisor (NACA's first Black supervisor) of the West Area Computing Group office. Realizing the introduction of the IBM machine would likely render her and her coworkers dispensable, Vaughan, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 98, taught herself how to program the newfangled technology. And then she taught her colleagues.
"She is the genesis of Black Girls Code," Spencer says. "Dorothy Vaughan knew that the computer was going to compute much faster than the women could. She's like, "Well, how do we get to the next phase of being invaluable to this company. We have to learn how to program these machines." This woman is the mother of all girls who code—Black, White, Latin, Asian, Indian. It all began with Dorothy Vaughan."
Certainly there is something of a mathematician in the fortysomething Spencer. Her remarkable performances in films such as Fruitvale Station and The Help, for which she won an Oscar, reveal both a rooted individual and one who exhibits a rare precision. "Forget about it," says Melfi, who likens the actress to an exquisite 1920 Bordeaux. "There's not a missed beat or a missed sense of anything. Octavia's just…she's money in the bank." Rightfully so, Spencer snagged a best supporting actress nomination for Hidden Figures from the Screen Actors Guild and is up for a Golden Globe in the same category.
While she doesn't think much about her legacy, Spencer is strategic about the parts she chooses and why. "Coming in and saying a line or two in a small role, when the juicier roles are being written for other people is not my idea of forward thinking," she says. Currently she is producing and starring in a series about Madam C.J. Walker with director Kasi Lemmons. "For me, when I get projects from directors of color, you have to take those chances. That's how you keep moving forward. You allow and create opportunities for people who wouldn't otherwise get them."
Whether she's talking about Black folks in Hollywood or Black women in space or Black Lives Matter, Spencer is both conscious and clear: "It does something to you emotionally to know that in this day and age we are still having to validate our very existence. That is humbling—it's enraging—but you know what? Personally, I love being underestimated. When you underestimate my value, because I know my worth, it's going to cost you."
A diminutive Janelle Monáe Robinson walks into The James New York hotel in Manhattan looking every bit like a rock star. The artist is wearing her signature black and white, including a sweater that says "Prince" in block letters and round shades that, when taken off, reveal a pretty makeup-free face. Monáe has just flown in from Atlanta, where she was up till 4 A.M. in the studio ("I am very inspired musically right now," she says). After this she's getting glammed up for the Gotham Awards, where her first movie, Moonlight—a coming-of-age tale about a young man discovering his sexuality—is receiving a Special Jury Ensemble Award. (It also won Best Feature, Best Screenplay and the Audience Award.)
"When I read the script, all I could think about was finally we have a story that hasn't been told that deals with the poor, young, gay, Black male experience," the singer turned actress says.
If you're a Janelle Monáe fan, then you understand why the self-described storyteller, who has formally studied acting, says this part is her "dream role." In music and fashion, she flirts with both the past and the future, from her coifs and saddle shoes to her total embrace of Afro-futurism and science fiction.
"I was obsessed with space," Monáe, 34, says. "I was a fan of Mae Jemison and wanted to be an astronaut." She is also the only one of the ensemble who says she had a love of math. "I was once really, really amazing in math. Now I wasn't a genius, but I had talent," she says. "Kids who love STEM are out there. We just need to be encouraged."
In Hidden Figures, she plays Mary Jackson, a former math teacher and West Area computer who, in 1958, became NASA's first Black aerospace engineer. Technically her title was aerospace engineer in the theoretical aerodynamics branch of the subsonic-transonic aerodynamics division at the Langley Research Center, thank you very much. (She had been invited by her supervisor to join an engineering program, but in order to do so, Jackson had to persuade the city of Hampton to allow her to integrate the graduate math and physics classes offered by the University of Virginia.) After 20 years, Jackson took a demotion to become Langley's Federal Women's Program manager. In her role as an equal opportunity specialist, she made sure women and minorities were represented. Jackson passed away in 2005 at the age of 83.
Sisterhood is a river that runs throughout Hidden Figures. Every individual victory for Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan (all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, by the way) was a win for the entire team—White women included. The film also did well in showing the social function of sisterhood, such as gladly supporting your girl while her star rises and admitting you, too, want to shine. "They knew that they were stronger together," Monáe says. "I think they would not have achieved the level of success they did had they not had one another."
The irony of the film is that for all of the its focus on space and moving forward, it comes at a time when our nation seems to be moving backward. Today there is a sense of history repeating itself. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Hidden Figures is that it acts as a sort of shape-shifter. In an age when the body is the default attraction on television and in the media, oftentimes to a desperately grotesque degree, there is something quietly powerful about the image of Black women mathematicians in pencil skirts working at NASA. There's something liberating about the focus not being on a Black woman's sexuality or servitude, but on her intellect.
"That's why this movie is so important," Henson declares. "These women are super f---ing heroes—without a cape, without a catsuit!" The actress shakes her head. "Without a catsuit. Humph. How about that?"
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