Behind the Stories of Black Female Friendship in 'Hidden Figures'

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder talks being a woman in STEM and bringing the story of three black female scientists to the screen.

by Sarah Hagi
Jan 11 2017, 3:55pm

Image via screengrab/ 20th Century Fox

Based off the nonfiction book of the same name, Hidden Figures tells the story of Katherine Johnson and her two friends and colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson working at a racially segregated West Area Computers division of NASA in the 1960s. Each woman contributed to NASA in a significant way; Johnson calculated the trajectories to help John Glenn orbit the Earth, Vaughan was the first African American woman to be Head of Personnel, and Jackson served as the Federal Women's Program Manager in the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.

It's easy to write off Hidden Figures as a run of the mill, feel good award season bait, but the film tells a necessary and important story not many are familiar with already. While their accomplishments are significant (Katherine Johnson has a building at NASA named after her), none of these women are household names. Hidden Figures goes deeper than merely telling a story of how three black women overcome endless obstacles to accomplish their dreams — it explores a deep and supportive friendship between women who find ways to lift each other up in the face of adversity.

Allison Schroeder, who co-adapted the screenplay alongside director Theodore Melfi, tells Broadly what it meant to bring such an important story to the screen and how her own personal experiences as a woman in STEM brought the story to life.

Broadly: For you writing this screenplay, were there times where you were like, "I wish there was more like this, this is such an important story to tell."

Allison Schroeder: Oh yeah, I mean I'm the co-chair of the Women's Committee at the Guild and on the Diversity Advisory Group, so this is kind of my mission and I've been writing scripts like this for years and a lot of the times nobody would pay attention or nobody would buy them or people would buy them and change them drastically. I can't tell you how many times I've written scripts where it was a diverse cast and it gets cast as all white. And it's just crushing to me because, for instance, I have two best friends from Stanford that are Indian and there's a character that's a composite of their names in almost every script, and it has yet to make it to screen. So this film was sort of pure wish-fulfillment for me to write. And it's kind of a wish-fulfillment script for the ladies—they worked their asses off and it's totally true, but their dreams came true.

Read More: Women Are Better at Coding than Men

I personally had never heard this story—I think most people haven't. Was their story something you were already familiar with before you went on board?

So I didn't know about these three ladies. My grandmother was a programmer at NASA and I also interned at NASA, so I was very aware that women were a part of NASA history even as early as the sixties, but I did not know about Katherine Johnson and Mary and Dorothy at all. And to read their stories is just crazy. Katherine had started to get some recognition recently from the Obama administration. But she was very insistent that the movie not just be about her. And I loved that. It needs to be about a group of women, especially three women who are friends and are lifting each other up and supporting each other.

There was a good conversation with Donna [Gigliotti] the producer and I had [about a] line of black women [who are walking from one building to another]. And she was like, "Do you really need that scene?" and I was like, yeah, because you need that image on screen not just of one black woman or two black women or three, but of a sea of this team to show it wasn't just one, it wasn't just an anomaly, this was a real group effort. And there were a lot of women that were involved that need to be recognized. And so it's one of my favorite things in the movie: that power walk with her.

My female friends and I don't spend our days talking about our romances, and maybe that is because we have such supportive husbands like women did in this movie.

You mentioned you did an internship in NASA and you have a bit of a science background.

I interned there for four years in high school. So they had this program called NASA Nurture for geeks like me who loved math and science. So I got bussed up there on a school bus all through high school. I got to do everything from learning binary coding to how to build circuit boards. I grew up, you know, within NASA. So I love math; I think Math is a beautiful thing. In college I was an economics major, which of course had a lot of calculus and math and statistics. So I did that course work at Stanford University and then I worked in finance for two years after graduating.

There's a very realistic element to the movie and what these women go through. Taking your experience as someone who loves the STEM field and someone who has worked in it, how did that translate into writing the screenplay? Did you have to translate a lot of your own experiences into the screenplay?

First they asked me can you handle the math, and I said, yes I definitely can. Then I was think I can I can handle the math. It was fun to research further and figure out how to explain it to an audience in a way that was digestible. My experience was very helpful. The scene with Janelle Monáe [Mary Jackson] when she comes into the classroom and the professor says, "The curriculum is not designed for women" happened to me when I was studying abroad at Oxford and I walked into an international economics class. I said the same thing [as Monáe]—that teaching a man was the same as teaching a woman. Also the same thing with how they didn't look the part. At Stanford a lot of the guys in my dorm were shocked when I said I was an economics major because I love to sing and dance, dress up, and have fun, and I didn't fit their stereotype...That was all stuff that I could draw into this film. And then their friendship as well is how my friendships look—we have good days and bad days but we're there for each other.

It also passes the Bechdel test. My female friends and I don't spend our days talking about our romances, and maybe that is because we have such supportive husbands like women did in this movie. That was also something great to celebrate. Mary Jackson in her interviews would talk about how her husband used to cook all the meals for her so she could stay late at night, which I love.

Image via screengrab.

I really did enjoy seeing the husbands being supportive on screen. So often, black men on screen are portrayed as controlling or unsupportive so I found this very realistic. Was that important for you?

Donna [Gigliotti] the producer, Margot [Lee Shetterly] the author and I were huge advocates throughout the development process to not lose that. We said, let's not go into all stereotypes or use old tropes—we've got to keep the narrative as it was. It was incredibly important to us that their families and their husbands and their personal relationships were very loving and very true to life, and it's fun to watch.

The movie was very feel-good but also tackled a lot of serious stuff. The bathroom subplot that involves Kathryn running half a mile on the NASA campus to go to the colored bathroom was so serious and affecting. How was it to incorporate these feel-good elements as well as featuring the discrimination they had to deal with?

In the book, there was a line from Mary Jackson about how she tried to find the bathroom one day, and the white women laughed because there was not one for her and that hers is half a mile away on the other side of campus,on the old side of campus. It just really stuck with me because I just finished reading the research Margot had sent me on the dress code. I was like, "Oh my God, heels and nylons and skirts are required in a Virginia summer and the Virginia winter, and she has to walk to just go to the bathroom." It shows both racism and sexism and I was worried because it almost seems like a silly storyline, but ultimately everyone on the team came together and really supported that.

I think it shows everyday racism and the racism that we're still dealing with. It's not just a big mob or lynching or a violent act in an alleyway. It's often these small and daily indignities that we need to talk about more.

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How was it for you as a white person to write these scenes about racism where you lack personal experience, but you're also trying to portray them in the most honest way possible?

I had the research and real people to base it on. So I thought, if I'm authentic [in writing their stories] I'll be okay. I am someone who studies human nature and who's been an activist in this field for a long time, and I know a lot about unconscious bias and how it works. Also, being a woman in STEM and being a woman that's been marginalized often helped. Also, just researching their side of it as black women and my perspective as a white person and putting the two together. We worked really hard to make this authentic.

You mentioned that you do a lot of work to champion diversity, and it's something that's really important for you, so what's next to keep this momentum of having more women and women of color in film going?

I have a musical with an incredibly diverse cast that I just sold. I have a miniseries about the hidden women in history that I am dying to make. When I start talking about these stories people's mouth sort of drop open and it's just like with Kathryn—they go, "How do we not know this?" It is time to tell the stories.