Octavia Spencer Addresses Hollywood's Diversity Woes, New film 'Hidden Figures'

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“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great story that needs to be told because we haven’t seen Black women from that era portrayed in that way.’”

When Octavia Spencer first read the script for her new movie Hidden Figures, which chronicles the true story of the three African-American female mathematicians behind NASA’s 1962 Friendship 7 mission, she thought it was brilliant fiction.

But the film is actually about the lives and contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson and when the Oscar-winning actress learned of this, she said it broke her heart. Spencer will play Vaughn in the film, which is slated for a January 2017 premiere, while Taraji P. Henson stars as Johnson and Janelle Monae costars as Jackson.

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“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a great story that needs to be told because we haven’t seen Black women from that era portrayed in that way,’” Spencer said at a SAG-AFTRA-sponsored diversity and gender parity panel at the Produced By 2016 event in Los Angeles. “When I found out it was true, it hurt me to the core. They were left out of the retelling of history and they made contributions to history. It’s not just Black women, it’s also women. They had an entire department of women.”

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The big-screen production is based on the Margot Lee Shetterly biography Hidden Figures: The African American Women Mathematicians Who Helped NASA and the United States Win the Space Race and was shot in Atlanta.

Dr. Jo Handelsman, the associate director for science in the White House Office of Science, shared the panel with Spencer and said NASA truly depended on Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson as human computers. Because of their hard work, astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit Earth. The panel also included actress Yara Shahidi of Black-ish and Judith Williams, Dropbox’s global head of diversity. 

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“John Glen famously said he wasn’t going into space unless Katherine checked the math,” said Handelsman. “That’s significant.”

As for Hollywood, everyone knows the industry has a diversity problem but the panel had the numbers to break down the disparities. For instance, among the 100 top grossing films of 2014, a mere 21 had women in leading or co-leading roles and only three of those were women of color and none were over the age of 45.

Spencer, who laughingly added that she is 46, said she continues to fight in ways large and small. For instance, when she produces projects, she requests that there’s a women writing or directing. Spencer’s producing credits include Fruitvale Station and the upcoming film Small Town Crime.  

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“If they can’t do that, I don’t need to be a part of the project. I need to be a part of the solution,” Spencer said, adding that there are strides being made. “When you look at the big tent-pole movies like The Avengers, they are now becoming more diverse in their casting and that needs to be applauded so that it continues.” 

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