Singer Pharrell Williams a space nerd who pushed to honour female African American mathematicians in Hidden Figures

Actresses (from left) Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae play the three protagonists of Hidden Figures.
Actresses (from left) Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae play the three protagonists of Hidden Figures.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Hidden Figures features female protagonists, co-producers as well as music played by women

You might not peg hip-hop star Pharrell Williams as a space nerd, but the musician's lifelong obsession with space travel, along with his desire to see black women depicted differently on screen, is why he signed on as a producer for the film Hidden Figures.

The Oscar-nominated sleeper hit tells the true story of the brilliant female African-American mathematicians and engineers who were the unsung heroes of the United States space programme in the 1960s.

Executive producer Williams - a 10-time Grammy-winning music producer, hip-hop recording artist and rapper - knew adapting Margot Lee Shetterly's non-fiction book of the same name would make for a ground-breaking movie.

"You have three AfricanAmerican female protagonists. And, I hate to say it, but the African- American woman (in movies) is usually the best friend of somebody with the great advice," says the singer, who was behind the 2014 charttopper Happy.

When do we ever get to see a story with three female protagonists who are scientists, engineers and mathematicians?

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER PHARRELL WILLIAMS on how he knew Hidden Figures would make for a ground-breaking movie

"And when do we ever get to see a story with three female protagonists who are scientists, engineers and mathematicians?"

The film opens in Singapore tomorrow after earning a fistful of awards and more than US$165 million (S$234 million) at box offices worldwide, making it the highest- grossing Best Picture nominee in the Oscar race.

The comedy drama is also up for two more gongs at the ceremony on Sunday: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for star Octavia Spencer.

Williams, 43, says he also would have done "anything to be a part of this" because he grew up in Hampton Roads, the region of Virginia that is home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) research centre in the story.

"Since I was a little boy, I was always obsessed with space and Nasa - whenever we got a chance we would go visit," he says.

But, like many others, this Nasa enthusiast had never even heard of space-programme mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Empire's Taraji P. Henson in the film, or of other Nasa brainiacs such as Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).

Johnson, who is 98 and the only one of the trio still alive, received a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions. But while she and other black women were vital to the early success of Nasa, racist and sexist attitudes meant they got little credit for it at the time.

Williams - who has an eight- year-old son with his wife Helen Lasichanh, a 36-year-old model and designer - did a double take when he first heard them referred to as "coloured computers", which is what Nasa called its African-American mathematicians back then.

"In those days, the 'computers' were actually the humans doing the computations. And I'm, like, 'How did I not hear this story?'"

Speaking after a screening in Los Angeles, Williams, director Theodore Melfi, composer Benjamin Wallfisch and actor Kevin Costner - who plays Johnson's boss - reveal this was a female-driven project both behind and in front of the camera.

They praised their female co-stars and co-producers, who were unable to attend the event.

Melfi (St Vincent, 2014) says: "It's a shame that there're four men up here - the truth is we are the minority in this group. Our lead producers are Donna Gigliotti and Jenno Topping, then there's Ivana Lombardi and Mimi Valdes.

"Only 3 per cent of the world's directors of photography are female and we have one of them, Mandy Walker. This was a very femaledriven project," says the 46-yearold, who took himself out of the running to direct Spider-Man: Homecoming to do this.

Wallfisch worked with Williams and Hans Zimmer on the score, which they envisioned as an uplifting throwback to the 1960s, drawing on gospel, band and orchestral music.

And, in addition to getting jazz great Herbie Hancock to play the piano, "we deliberately tried to hire as many African-American women as we could to play in the orchestra", says the 37-year-old. "We had these incredible musicians and they brought their own soul to the score."

Featuring prominently in the soundtrack is Williams' original song Running, which plays when Johnson has to walk nearly half a mile from her desk to the nearest bathroom because toilets were racially segregated then and blacks were not allowed to use the ones designated for whites in the main building.

"As an African-American woman, you had to make this 30- to 40-minute round-trip to the bathroom, rain or shine. And I'm from Virginia - sometimes it's superhumid and sometimes it's unforgivably cold," Williams says, adding that women could not use the campus bikes provided because they were expected to wear dresses and skirts to work.

"So you're going to work every day with the gravity of being a black woman in the 1960s, but you love doing what you do. What must've been going through your mind as you had to make this jog? That's what Running was about."

Veteran actor Costner, 62, says he was more than happy to take a supporting role in an ensemble cast that includes Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst, who play Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson's unsympathetic white colleagues.

The star, who won an Oscar for directing Dances With Wolves (1990), says: "I just like being a part of something that has a life longer than opening weekend.

"I care that a movie can be revisited five or 20 years from now. It will have a level of meaning to those who watch it and there will be little girls who watch it and say, 'I can do that. I can be that.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Movie driven by women'. Print Edition | Subscribe