Once the feel-good film of awards season, ‘Hidden Figures’ is now a big winner and a big moneymaker
Throughout this film awards cycle, “Hidden Figures” has been the crowd-pleasing, uplifting fan favorite.
Everyone seems to love the inspirational true story of the African-American women who worked behind the scenes at NASA during the space race of the 1960s, but the movie’s not had much luck snagging any trophies from the likes of “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea.”
But that changed when “Hidden Figures” won the Actor for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture – the equivalent of best picture – at the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. With Oscar front-runner “La La Land” not nominated in the category, most expected the award to go to “Moonlight” or “Manchester by the Sea.”
“This story is about unity,” said star Taraji P. Henson as the cast accepted the award, per the Associated Press. ”This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and we come together as a human race. We win. Love wins. Every time.”
Named the Alliance of Women Film Journalist Movie of the Week earlier this month, “Hidden Figures” didn’t just win at the SAG Awards last weekend, either. The $25 million-budgeted period drama, which was No. 1 at the U.S. and Canadian box office for two weekends in a row, earned another $14 million in its fourth weekend of wide release for a No. 3 release. More important and impressively, it now has earned a whopping $104 million domestic total, according to Forbes. “Hidden Figures” might just end up being Fox’s second-biggest domestic grosser of 2016 behind the superhero hit “Deadpool.”
So much for the increasingly outdated and just plain incorrect notion that movies about women and people of color don’t make money or earn acclaim. As previously reported, in its opening weekend — when it edged out another woman-led movie, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Saga, to finish in the top spot at the domestic box office — “Hidden Figures” not only earned an A+ CinemaScore from filmgoers but also drew a diverse audience. Forty-three percent of ticket buyers were Caucasian, and 37 percent were black. Females made up 64 percent of the film’s audience, while 56 percent of were 35 or older, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
As I noted in my Top 10 movies of 2016 list, where “Hidden Figures” landed at No. 4, the only thing not to love about this movie is how long it’s taken for people to learn about the vital role that a group of whip-smart African-American women played in putting the first U.S. astronauts into orbit.
Based on the book by first-time author Margot Lee Shetterly, the historical drama finally reveals the untold story of the pioneering mathematicians, engineers and computer programmers –since they were black and women, they were known as lowly “computers” and largely barred from claiming credit for their work — who helped NASA launch the first men into space while enduring the indignities of racial segregation and misogynistic disregard.
Screenwriter Allison Schroeder and director/co-writer Theodore Melfi bring a thrilling urgency to the space race, and Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer are impossible not to root for as three working mothers mastering advanced arithmetic, raising their families and fighting for their rights. Henson’s explosion over the injustice of her half-mile trek to the NASA campus’ only colored ladies room is worth the price of admission alone, but the soundtrack featuring Monae, Pharrell Williams, Lalah Hathaway, Miles Davis and Ray Charles also provides plenty of reasons to cheer.
Hopefully, the SAG Awards victory will only boost “Hidden Figures’” Oscar prospects. As previously reported, the comedic drama is nominated for three Academy Awards: best picture, best supporting actress for Spencer and best adapted screenplay for Schroeder and Melfi.
On Oscar night, I’ll be rooting not just for “Hidden Figures” but specifically for Schroeder. She talked to Salon.com about how she was uniquely qualified to bring such authenticity to her breakthrough project:
“I got on the phone with her and Donna (Donna Gigliotti, the producer of “Hidden Figures” and executive and co-producer Renee Witt) and I said, ‘You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this.’ Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, ‘God, these Hollywood types would say anything.’ I said, ‘No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.’
She was like, ‘OK that’s impressive.’ And I said, ‘No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.’
She said, ‘Well do you think you can handle the math?’ I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, ‘Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.’”
In the Salon.com interview, Schroeder said she hopes “Hidden Figures” makes a difference.
“Every time we tell people this story, people are like, How can that be? How can we not know that? How can that be true? And everybody’s super drawn into it. I had high hopes that a certain crowd would go to it. I don’t think I ever thought about high schools or kids going to it, and that’s been probably the best part. There was an email forwarded to me from a first-grade teacher, and she said she was teaching them civil rights for MLK weekend, and a little first-grader stood up and he said, ‘I can explain segregation’ and proceeded to explain all the scenes from ‘Hidden Figures.’ And I died because that’s everything,” she said.
“I do think from the get-go, even when we were really small, this felt very special and that we were doing something different. I write in my pajamas on my sofa surrounded by my cats. It’s a bit isolating. And I would just hear all these actresses say, ‘There aren’t any juicy roles for me, where I’m complicated and layered and I’m not just a girlfriend or a mother.’ As I was typing, I was like, It’s coming; it’s coming ladies! I’m working on it! I was hyper aware that what we were doing was incredibly different. I am very relieved that it’s done so well. I hope it changes the game.”
Hopefully, the film won’t just be a game-changer for Hollywood. Spencer’s decision to pay to have the film shown for free in a Los Angeles theater leading into the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend inspired several of her castmates as well as Melfi and Pharrell to arrange additional free screenings, some open to all, while others were specifically for girls, women and the underprivileged.
According to Variety, the effort has now made a total of more than 1,500 seats for “Hidden Figures” available, free of charge, to poor individuals and families. Although the free screenings began with the “Hidden Figures” crew, many others have stepped forward to offer them. Hopefully, seeing the film will encourage more children – especially girls, minorities and underprivileged students – to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.
Plus, the film’s success may just finally make one of its real-life heroes a household name while she’s still alive to enjoy it. Katherine Johnson, the now-retired NASA mathematician played by Henson in “Hidden Figures,” will turn 99 in August and suddenly finds herself inundated with interview requests, award banquet invitations and people who just want to stop by and shake her hand, according to the Washington Post.
Her daughters said Johnson has seen the film three times.
“I’m glad that I’m young enough still to be living and that they are, so they can look and see, ‘That’s who that is,’ ” Johnson told the Washington Post. “And they are as excited as I am.”
-BAMexplore: Academy Awards | Allison Schroeder | box office | Hidden Figures | Janelle Monae | Octavia Spencer | Oscars | SAG Awards | Taraji P. Henson