"Hidden Figures" tells the true story of three African American women who were instrumental to the success of the U.S. space race in the 1960s.
Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were mathematicians who worked at the NASA Langley Research Center. They helped plot trajectories that put astronaut John Glenn into orbit and brought him back to earth. But the women couldn’t even use the same bathrooms as their white colleagues in Jim Crow-era Virginia.
Songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams has a producer credit on the film and he wrote music for the soundtrack, along with composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.
We met up with Pharrell in a Hollywood recording studio to talk about the film, and I asked him: of all the projects he’s offered, why did this film speak to him in particular?
On what attracted him to the story:
First of all, it lifts women in an amazing way. It wasn't a movie about a weekend trip or divorces or whatever. It's a movie about three African American female protagonists who were into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And the idea that this all happened in Hampton Roads [Virginia], which is my stomping grounds. As soon as I heard about it, I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard the story before. As I get older, I realize that there's nothing random in life, and there's often more times of serendipity. Six years ago our charitable organization, called From One Hand to Another — [which] is largely based on the STEM program — had an African American astronaut by the name of Leland Melvin. And he came and brought Katherine Johnson. I didn't know her then, and even when I told my mom the story, I didn't remember that I met her because it was very briefly. That's when my mom said, You met her before ... That was mind blowing.
On the story not being well known:
The story is not more widely celebrated, not just because of segregation [but] because of what's going on with women and what's always going on with women. Women have been an integral part of everything we've ever done. Just think: anything that a man has ever made, a woman made him. But women's direct contributions in terms of achievements, the accolades have always been slighted, dismissed or forgotten. These women were dealing with a double whammy of not only being female, but also being African American. So it was tough.
On how he figured out the style and sound of the film's music:
When I first started the project I wanted Hans Zimmer to do it, and he insisted that we all do it together. We found ourselves in the room the first couple of days just throwing ideas and chord progressions around, asking ourselves, How did it make us feel? The lowest common denominator for us is that when you think about film scores, a lot of them —chord progression-wise — tend to go a bit Anglo, a bit Euro. That may not be the feeling that these women were feeling — these African American women in the 1960s. They were feeling something completely different. Music is one of the only things that can penetrate barriers. When there's a physical wall, music — because it's sonic, on a wavelength — literally can penetrate the walls. So we thought, Why not give them music that felt a little more hopeful toward them? We really wanted to think about that. So again, it was, both things considered. It was not only African American, but there was a female consideration.
On segregation and discrimination at NASA:
In the 1960s, as an African American female working at NASA, it was an amazing opportunity and such a great stride and progression for our culture. However, it did come with obstacles. As an African American woman, their bathrooms were not in the same buildings or the adjacent buildings. They had to go all the way to the other side of the campus. In the 1960s — we forget that women were frowned upon for wearing shorts or pants. Women had to wear skirts and dresses, so there was no campus bike riding for them. So she had to make a 30-45 minute round trip to the bathroom every day whenever she had to use the bathroom. And because things were so timely and you needed to be punctual, she had to run. Rain or shine, this woman had to run. I thought to myself, What must she have been thinking? She was a mathematics savant. Her numbers obviously superseded that time. They superseded everything that was going on to help us in the space race. As she was running every day, what was she thinking? What is a mind like that thinking?
On his hopes for the audience's takeaway:
I can tell you this: you see what you want to see, right? When people talk about their [political] candidates and they talk about the bad things and the good things, they see what they want to see. So I don't know what people are going to see in this film, but I hope they see the equality. I hope they look at this, look at their wives, look at their grandmothers, look at their aunts, look at their nieces and their daughters and say, Man, I had no idea that you go through this. I want to come out of this and see what I can do more. Of the different viewings that we've done, it's been amazing to see men hold their women closer. It's been amazing to see women recognize that, yeah, they're having their moment in the film, but they can have more than that moment. They can have a lifetime if they just band together. It's been beautiful to see the strength that I see in women when they see this film.
On whether or not art can change the way people think:
Art has always played an integral part of any kind of messaging. Message, muses, musician — it's all the same. Art was meant to convey a message any way you look at it. Any artistic discipline — from an automobile to a chair to a blouse to a painting, sculpture or song. It's all meant to convey a message. So I'm hoping that the messengers recognize that it's our time.
On if he expects it'll be seen by President-elect Trump?
The current president and First Lady are due to see it in December. We're going to go. That'll be interesting. The next administration ... How do you judge? ... It takes ugliness to recognize what is beautiful and for us to recognize the things that we should cherish. So in the face of ugliness and ugly messages, I think that people are going to galvanize. They're going to recognize that there's power in numbers. I think they're going to think everyone who was afraid is going to recognize that if they come together, they're going to be stronger. I was thinking women would galvanize and just say, You know, we're going to make that decision. It's my opinion that women, if they wanted to end the human race now, they could do it. They'd just simply say, No more children. And there's nothing that men could do. I think that day is coming when they recognize that they have that power. I'm waiting on the women, personally.