By Brian Truitt. Pharrell Williams met math greatness — and a real American heroine — and didn’t even know it. The music star’s mom had to remind him that he was introduced five years ago to Katherine Johnson, a black NASA aerospace technologist who was instrumental to the calculations that sent men to the cosmos during the 1960s space race and racial segregation. Now Williams is taking an active role in the movie based on her life, Hidden Figures, by signing on as a producer and creating original music inspired by the period and Johnson herself.
“I don’t feel like we celebrate enough mathematicians as it is, let alone an African-American female at such a time having to use a bathroom all the way on the other side of the campus just because that’s the way it is,” Williams says. “You can’t believe what she went through and stayed amazingly focused on the greater goal.” Taraji P. Henson stars in the film (in theaters January 13th, 2017), which centers on the personal and professional lives of Johnson (Henson) and fellow NASA mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (singer Janelle Monáe).
The movie focuses on their efforts getting John Glenn (Glen Powell) home from his 1962 orbit of Earth. Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and now filming in Atlanta, also stars Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, Aldis Hodge and Mahersala Ali. Williams will “produce the entire musical palette of the film,” says producer Donna Gigliotti, adding that so far tunes have had the feel of Southern spirituals and girl-group harmonies. And with Monáe in the cast, Williams anticipates that the first musical collaboration between the two “will happen for sure.” The real-life Johnson, 97, a 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal Of Freedom, is “a really strong soul,” Williams says, and he promises “lifting” music to match her legacy.
“It’s an ambitious thing, but I’m excited for the opportunity. We want people to leave (the theater) higher than the way they walked in.” Williams say he has loved NASA and space since he was a little boy growing up in Virginia Beach — he lived a short drive away from the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where Johnson worked. Plus, his From One Hand To AnOTHER foundation is involved with initiatives for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
At a time when the movie industry is paying attention to diversity issues, Williams says he is proud to be involved in a project with so many minority women. “Hollywood is reflective of a lot of areas that are just antiquated in the views and the customs,” he says. “I want this to push more than just the boundaries of Hollywood — I want this to push the boundaries (everywhere).” Williams also says he wants younger viewers to watch Johnson’s story and realize there’s a huge future in math for them. “Her numbers took us to space. That’s inspiring,” Williams says. “A young beautiful girl who loves numbers could hear this and say, ‘If she could get us to the moon then maybe I could get us beyond the solar system.’ ”