The Director of 'Hidden Figures' on How His Movie Changed Him Forever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his film grossed $100 million and earned three Oscar nods — and he’s just getting started.
By Libby Coleman
Sometimes you do save the best for last, and in the case of Hidden Figures, the final day’s shoot came with a wallop.
Playing a Black mathematician at NASA in the early 1960s, Taraji P. Henson scrambles into the office, disheveled and dripping rain, only to be chastised by her boss (Kevin Costner) for the length of her absence. Henson starts off cool, explaining that every time she has to use the restroom, she must run half a mile to the “colored” bathrooms. “Did you know that?” she asks. It’s here that her voice blooms into a beautiful, calibrated rage, each syllable unloading a year of mistreatment. “I work like a dog day and night. Living off the coffee from a pot that none of you want to touch,” she screams. The character regains her composure, though the room, filled with dozens of white men, stills with shock. Cut!
Which is when everyone on set burst into applause.
Much like the characters in Hidden Figures, Ted Melfi is before his time. He cowrote the screenplay before there was even a candidate Trump, before the new brouhaha about who can use which bathrooms, before a string of police shootings involving Black motorists and, of course, before #OscarsSoWhite. Now Hidden Figures, which Melfi also directed, has raked in $100 million at the box office, plus three Oscar nominations, plus a special screening at the White House. Its success should be a proof of concept for Hollywood, says Gil Robertson, president of the African-American Film Critics Association: “It demonstrates there’s an audience for female-centered movies.” And a raucous, engaged audience it is, judging by my viewing experience in a sold-out theater in San Francisco: The audience laughed out loud, cried and cheered the heroines on through each quip and victory.
Of course, there’s no such thing as an overnight success in Hollywood, and there’s no such thing as overnight change either. Just a few years ago, Melfi wrote, directed and coproduced St. Vincent, intending a prominent supporting role to go to a Black actress (Henson, in particular). Although the film was lauded for its casting — The Wall Street Journal devoted an entire feature to how he got Bill Murray — Melfi was disappointed: His requests to cast Henson were denied, he says. Naomi Watts landed the gig — perhaps not surprising, given only 12.9 percent of film leads in 2014 were minority actors.
Melfi’s voice is grizzled over the phone and he cracks jokes that he laughs at himself, punctuating the punchline. He reminds me a bit of Jack Black, which is to say — yes, he is a white dude, and yes, that is a bit ironic given the movie’s subject matter. But Melfi has used his work to state clearly and loudly that he’s a feminist. “As a white man, you have privilege,” he tells OZY, even if he grew up “dirt poor.”
Melfi, who is in his forties, grew up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, an era before the borough’s hipster-yoga-stroller explosion. His mother was raised in Tarrytown, the daughter of a well-to-do surgeon, while Melfi’s father came over to America on a boat from Italy. When Melfi was a teenager, his father left, and his mother became a single parent to three and went to work as a nurse. (Among his role models are Martin Scorcese, Frank Capra and his mom.) While the family struggled to make ends meet, there were some blips of small stardom, like when Melfi’s father ran as a write-in candidate for governor in the 1980s against Mario Cuomo Sr. In part due to that excitement, Melfi aspired to be a governor. Still, he consistently wrote. That suited his quiet, introverted personality better.
Melfi graduated early and went to college at Missouri State University at age 16, studying architecture and design and psychology. With two degrees, he picked up across the country to Los Angeles, but ins within the biz were hard to come by. He paid the bills by working security in the parking lot of a strip club — “not inside with the girls,” he says, laughing. All the while, he binged on Capra and Spike Lee (especially Do the Right Thing, shot in Brooklyn).
Next up: Melfi sold a feature script called Fruit Loops — about patients in a mental health institution — in a reported bidding war worth seven figures. And this spring, audiences will see another movie he wrote, Going in Style, a remake of a 1979 elderly heist comedy. (Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin and Michael Caine star; Zack Braff directed.) But mostly he’ll be reveling in the change he’s brought about: To him, Hollywood seems more focused on “how do we make this movie representative of our nation and our world?” And Melfi is unequivocal about this: He’ll pass on any script with only white men, he says.
In a way, he resembles Costner’s character in Hidden Figures, who, upon hearing his best mathematician’s outburst, took a crowbar to the sign that segregated the bathrooms and proclaimed, “At NASA, we all pee the same color.” Melfi’s crowbar isn’t a physical implement; it’s not dismantling bricks and mortar. But it’s dismantling all the same. If he’s told to cast a white character when he wants a Black one, he says, “I’ll never go along with it again. I don’t have to anymore.”
Ned Colin contributed reporting.