Taraji P. Henson was having a moment. Onstage at the Toronto Film Festival after a special presentation of scenes from her upcoming movie Hidden Figures, she was trying to hold back tears, and talking about the film just got her choked up again. “I’m sorry if I look a mess with my makeup,” Henson said, wiping her eyes. “I should’ve done like Alicia Keys and taken it off.”
She wasn’t the only one feeling emotional. Hidden Figures tells the story of unsung NASA heroes Katherine Johnson (played by Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), black women whose drive and calculations proved crucial to sending astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. The trailer was well-received when it dropped last month, but this was the first time that the stars had seen any more footage from the film, which is due for wide release in January but widely expected to get an Oscar-qualifying run this December.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Henson, collecting herself after a series of scenes that showed her going toe to toe with NASA superiors played by Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons. “I’m a girl from the hood. I didn’t grow up with much, so all I had was dreams and hope. The reason why this is so overwhelming,” she said, tears coming once more, “is because when you come from a place where you have no dreams, no hope, and all you see is that people that look like you don’t belong or they have no place in society … ” She trailed off. “If I had known about these women coming up, maybe I would have aspired to be a rocket scientist.”
“Not to say that I have a bad journey,” cracked Henson, who took the role in between top-rated seasons of Empire. “Let me clear that up. But nowadays, this is all kids of color feel like they have: sports, rap, acting. And there’s so much more work to be done.”
From the footage shown, Fox has a smoothly made crowd-pleaser on its hands, with juicy roles for Henson, Spencer, and especially a scene-stealing Janelle Monae, who also pops up in the acclaimed Moonlight this winter. But the stars of Hidden Figures are concerned with more than just box office or awards attention: They want to rectify an official record of the space race that often omits some of its most needed contributors.
“No women, not black or white, were mentioned in Apollo 13 or all of these other movies,” said Spencer, who then choked up herself: Vaughan, the mathematician she plays, died in 2008 well before she could have imagined her story being told on such a large scale. “For me, I’m sad that Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson won’t see this thing,” Spencer said, adding, “But I’m excited that Katherine Johnson will.”
“I just want her to be proud,” said Henson. “People come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh, Oscars!’ Everybody wants to put that pressure [on me]. I don’t accept that pressure — I’ll let y’all say it — but what I was most concerned about is if Katherine would be proud. She’s still alive, this is her story. Whether the Oscars love it, whoever else … would she be happy? That’s all I care about.”
And after a bruising election year, maybe Hidden Figures is the salve that audiences will need this winter. “We see what’s going on in society right now, right?” said Henson. “It shouldn’t matter what God you celebrate, what color your skin is, who you go to sleep with at night, who you say ‘I do’ to — I don’t care … This world is looking really scary right now. We need hope. The universe conjures up what it needs when it needs it, and I believe that this movie is needed right now.”
“Amen, sister,” said Spencer, nodding.