Hidden Figures wins Sloan Science Prize & a B+ from me

I attended a special preview screening of Hidden Figures Saturday afternoon at the Castro. It was more than just a screening. The drama, about African-American women who played major roles in the early days of NASA, won this year’s Sloan Science in Cinema Prize, and the event celebrated that win.

San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan started the festivities, bringing Sloan Foundation Vice President Doron Weber to the stage. After discussing the Foundation, he brought up the film’s director, Theodore Melfi, and one of its stars, Octavia Spencer, to receive the prize.

Melfi, award in hand, told us that it was heavier than an Oscar. He also told us that Hidden Figures was screened at the White House, where Michelle Obama called the film is “a necessity.”

Then we got to see the movie.

If you remember anything about the space program in the 1960s, you probably remember a lot of white men. This historical drama pokes holes in that image, allowing you to see the African-American women, all math geniuses, who made the early space program possible. Hidden Figures focuses on three real women – all actual historical figures (several other characters are fictionalized). The film provides a light, easy-to-digest version of a forgotten part of US history. It’s a feel-good movie that actually has something to feel good about. Try to catch it with an enthusiastic audience.

My full review will go live closer to the film’s official premiere. I give Hidden Figures a B+.

After the movie, director/co-writer Theodore Melfi, star Octavia Spencer and NASA engineer Tracy Drain joined Noah Cowan for a Q&A session.

A few highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • Spencer on deciding to make this film: “This really happened. I went from being completely angry to happy to angry and wanting to tell the story.”
  • Melfi: There’s a lot of historical stuff that’s true here.
  • Melfi on balancing the different parts of the story: I wrote on index cards. I figured it would be 50% [of the film time] at NASA, 50% at home. One third to each woman. I didn’t know if that would work.
  • Was Spencer involved in creating the many “amazing one-liners” her character gets to speak? “I’d love to take credit for that, but it’s always on the script.”
  • Spencer on her childhood: My mom was a very practical woman. She told me whatever I do in life I have to train for it. I realized I had to study.
  • Spencer on learning the complex math: I was proficient at math, but this was rocket science.
  • Spencer, who grew up in the South: It wasn’t until I moved to LA before I knew what racism means.