Though her father was a research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, writer, researcher, and entrepreneur Margot Lee Shetterly knew very little of the Black female engineers, scientists, and mathematicians that helped catapult the United States into the space race during the 20th century. As a result of her compelling 55-page book proposal, Shetterly’s book “Hidden Figures” was optioned for film. “Hidden Figures,” which debuts in theaters on Christmas Day tells the astounding story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three of NASA’s ingenious “human computers” who were instrumental in helping the USA reach new heights in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, I sat down with Margot Lee Shetterly to discuss her fascinating, best-selling narrative, and the film that has moved audiences across the country. We chatted about how she uncovered this untold story, handing the history over to Hollywood, and what she hopes we can all learn from these incredible women.
Aramide Tinubu: I know that this was a deeply personal narrative for you because your father worked for NASA. What brought you to this project? Did you know about Katherine Johnson and the other Black female scientists in this story? Did your father ever talk about them while you were growing up?
Margot Lee Shetterly: I did know them growing up. My dad worked with Mary Jackson very closely at one point. I knew Katherine Johnson as well. They were all part of this group of Black engineers and scientists within this larger NASA community. So these people on one weekend would go to the HBCU Alumni Association Dance, and then the next weekend they would go off to the National Tech Association where they would put on their science hats and be together and talk about that.
MLS: Yeah, so I got to see them in this really fluid way. There was no disconnect between those parts of their identities; it was very normal. But you know, while I knew the women; I didn’t know their story and how they got there. It was really my husband who helped spark the idea. We were visiting my parents almost exactly six years ago and had run into one lady who is a Sunday School teacher, and my dad was talking about the work that she’d done, and it just turned into this larger conversation about these different women. My husband was like, “This is amazing! Wait a minute nobody knows about this!” And I was like, “Wow, I don’t know this story.” That was really the beginning of me saying, “OK, I need to know this story.” Six years later here we are.
AT: That’s so amazing. I know that your process was very different. A lot of times people write books and then they are optioned for film. However, you were writing the book while the film being shot, it happened pretty much simultaneously. What was that process like?
MLS: I would say it took three years of just research to really come to the point where I had the form of the book and was working to pull the book in its current structure together. So when they called me up, Donna Gigliotti the producer, who is really truly a brilliant visionary woman, she called me up just based on the book proposal. I was an unpublished author, and it was my first book, which is a big risk.
AT: A huge risk!
MLS: She said, “Listen, we’re gonna make a movie out of this.” So I was like, “OK. I need to get on this book fast!”
AT: Was it scary at all for you to hand over this really precious piece of history, specifically a story of Black women to Hollywood?
MLS: First of all, you would be really sensitive handing it over even if it was a complete piece. But doing so as you’re still working on it was even more so. There were moments when I was like, “Jeez. This is crazy. What have I done?” But, it was clear from the beginning that they wanted to do it the right way. They also hired me as a consultant on the film.
AT: That’s really wonderful! So you were always informed?
MLS: Yes, it was really great. They kept me apprised. I would be sitting there working on the book, and all of a sudden a version of the script would show up in my inbox and I would read it and just be like, “This is wrong! That’s wrong!” I just remember being like, “Oh my God!” A lot of that was really not understanding what it means to adapt something for film. So I was like, “No! That’s literally incorrect.” At some point, I’ll look at those notes again and think “Oh my God I was so ridiculous.” (Laughing)
AT: (Laughing) It’s a learning process.
MLS: It’s a learning process. But you know what? A lot of times they listened to me. When I look at the final version of the movie, they really took a lot of my feedback into consideration. What was very true was that everybody wanted to get the story right, and they wanted to do honor to these women. Hampton, Virginia recently had a premiere screening of the film and people went insane; they loved it. Katherine Johnson loved it. The look, the feel, the authenticity, which is the word that they kept using was on point. My mom, who had seen the inside of Katherine Johnson’s house was like, “Did they shoot that in her house?”
AT: Wow! That must have felt incredible.
MLS: All of the details even if they weren’t literally the same, the authenticity of it came through, and people responded like crazy.
AT: And that’s so important.
MLS: It’s so important; it’s what we want. It’s what this is about.
AT: For sure. So was there any moment during your research or speaking with Katherine and learning about the other women that really shocked you? For me, it was watching Taraji P. Henson as Katherine run out of the building repeatedly to the bathroom. I never considered something like that, and it was so haunting to me.
MLS: I would say for me, some of the most memorable moments happened really early on. Katherine Johnson for obvious reasons was among my first interviews for this, and that’s when I first heard the name, Dorothy Vaughan. I’d never heard the name Dorothy Vaughan before. Katherine has been someone who has been fairly well known at least in Hampton, Virginia for a while. So in this interview she was like, “Dorothy Vaughan is the smartest person that I ever knew.” I was like, I need to take notes. Who is this Dorothy Vaughan? I remember I was chasing down the stories. It was one of those things where you undercover one rock and there was another rock, and you kept going and going. I remember The Norfolk Journal and Guide, which is a Black newspaper that still exists, but it was really influential as you can imagine in the forties, fifties, and sixties. But, all of their archives are online and digitized, and it was a really great resource. At one point I found this little blurb that said, “Mrs. D.J. Vaughan; math teacher at the high school in Farmville, Virginia has accepted a position at Langley Field.”
AT: Oh my goodness.
MLS: Right?! It was December 1943, because that’s when it first started but I was like that is the beginning of my book. It just all went from there so that moment, that was just like “Oh my God I have found the beginning of the story.”
AT: So what do you hope for this story, for the film and your book?
MLS: Well I have been so blown away, a little overwhelmed, but mostly just so honored about the reception for the book the enthusiasm for the book. People will come to the signings and bring like ten copies of the book. There are boys and men who come and have the same reaction, which is amazing to me. So, that is wonderful because I think having a whole new generation of scientists and creative minds, even beyond science; for them to see these women and to be very imaginative is so important. The other thing I really hope is that this is seen as an American story; a great American sweeping epic.
AT: It’s not just Black.
MLS: No it’s not just Black, or Black women although that is very important obviously to see that reflected and to see Black women reflected in that way as protagonists. But, I really want everybody to see it and to respond to it. I got invited a couple of months ago to go to a Trump county. I went five hours away from my home in Virginia to go to the far south part of the state, and if you look at the electoral map it’s red, like very red. I went and spoke to some kids. They got these kids up at five o’clock in the morning, and they bused them into a theater. We had two showings that day, and they filled every single seat. We talked about “Hidden Figures,” we talked about segregation, we talked about these women and how they were so inspiring. We talked about how Katherine Johnson is from right over the hill from these guys, from a town that is even smaller. This is a place that is super rural, it’s very poor, it’s coal country, it’s all of these things that people are talking about now, and these kids saw themselves in this story.
AT: I think that was important because it really was everyone’s effort to get a leg up in the space race.
MLS: Yes. So, there was maybe one Black kid there between the two showings and everyone was like. “I love this story.” “Can we read it? “ “I already read it.” Everything people get down about, how America is so fractured, I think, you know what, these women, the power of these women and their story really is where you can find the common humanity. That’s what it’s all about. So, that’s what I truly hope for this book and for this movie.”
AT: So what’s next for you after “Hidden Figures”? Are you working on any new stories?
MLS: Well, I found two other stories, untold stories with charismatic characters that I would like to write. I started to think of “Hidden Figures” as the first part of a mid-century African-American trilogy.
AT: Oh, incredible.
MLS: Yes. I’m excited about it. It will address a lot of the issues of social mobility, the American Dream, economic justice, democracy, and what it means to be American. All of these things that for one reason or another, I’ve always been kind of obsessed with. I just find it very interesting. At some point, once the “Hidden Figures” tidal wave is settled, I hope to work on that.
AT: Fantastic, well thank you so much, Margot, for taking the time to speak with me.
MLS: Thank you it’s been a real pleasure.
“Hidden Figures” hits theaters Christmas Day.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a Black cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com.
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