Why the Success of ‘Hidden Figures’ Matters for Hollywood and Society

Guest Contributor: Nick Caruso, The Littlest Winslow

When Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures was initially released, it immediately hit number one at the box office, banking a sizable $22.8 million, and surpassing Rouge One: A Star Wars Story by nearly a million dollars. Even more remarkable was that Figures, a story about the black female mathematicians and physicists who worked for NASA in the 1960s, was playing on nearly 2,000 fewer screens than the Star Wars behemoth. Not only was this impressive for a quieter then-Oscar hopeful, but it was a movie fronted by females…and better yet…black females. Its success is a coup for film-making and a bold statement about what audiences want to see and what they’ll spend their dollars on.

The biographical film stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, who play women directly involved in astronaut John Glenn’s history-making orbit around Earth. All three actresses crush their respective roles, adding humor and heart to the Civil Rights-era film. All three, Henson’s Katherine Johnson, Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn and Monáe’s Mary Jackson, were real-life women who aided in the ground-breaking mission, yet never received proper credit likely due to the color of their skin. Their stories remained largely untold until Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name was released in early 2016.

Not only is it important that these women’s stories finally be told, but the movie serves as a stark reminder of how life was for African Americans in the days of segregation. Henson’s Katherine Johnson can be seen running miles in heels just to get to a bathroom that “colored” women can use. We witness how their superiors and co-workers look down on them, not only because they are women, but also because of their race. The glass ceilings are shown to be almost impenetrable, as if Katherine, Dorothy and Mary should feel lucky to have a job at all. Watching their struggles, and later, their triumphs is quite emotional, as the movie shows what it’s like living in a world that’s constantly pushing them down. The story finishes as a feel-good tale, but the fact that we’re only just now spotlighting their accomplishments in the mainstream shows that we still have a long way to go.

Figures‘ box office tally is now almost $159 million, domestically, with a worldwide earning of nearly $195 million. How many times have we heard rhetoric spouted by (male) studio executives that no one will show up for a female-fronted movie, or that women simply don’t go to the movies. These numbers clearly shut down such misogynist Hollywood claims. In fact, according to Variety, female moviegoers comprised of 64 percent of the film’s opening weekend take. Hidden Figures has proven time and time again that (black) women can lead films and be profitable (its budget was a modest $25 million), and this is crucially important for producers and studios to realize. Success stories like this could help break down barriers in Hollywood and dictate the direction of future content that hits the big screen. The people (and critics) have spoken.

Bottom line: You should support Hidden Figures in any way possible because these ladies’ stories deserve telling. They’re inspirational. Race and gender should no longer dictate what and who we see on the big screen. While the entertainment industry is a microcosm of our society, flaws and all, we need to move away from using race and gender as indicators of what stories will get a green light for production. But alas, no system is perfect, Hollywood or otherwise. We can only strive to do better and be better given these peculiar political and societal times.

With last year’s #OscarsSoWhite movement behind us and with Moonlight’s recent win for Best Picture, hopefully Hollywood, and more importantly, our society, are on the right path. No matter what horror stories we read on the internet every day, we can only aim to maintain a path of acceptance and equality in our art and in our daily lives. Among all this kerfuffle, one thing that has made itself abundantly clear: Representation matters.

Nick Caruso is a Buffy-obsessed TV geek and music junkie who digs tacos and (regrettably) cats. He can be found writing about all things pop culture—from cult films to Oscar bait, and more—on his site, The Littlest Winslow.


Look Into My ‘Crystal’ Ball: 2012 Oscar Predictions and Projections

(Image created by Alyssa Papachristos)

While my cable box remains a mystery—will it work, or wont it?—the excitement mounts as the hour draws nearer. And after months of forgetfulness, we will remember that we could be suffering through Eddie Murphy’s undoubtedly horrible hosting gig! Thankfully, the Academy dusted off good ol’ reliable, a.k.a. Billy Crystal, in lieu of the unfortunate choices they’ve made in recent years past (coughJamesFrancocough).

Now, as we prep and ponder, I present my predictions for the most prominent categories… that really means, here’s a list of people I want to win. How about you?

Best Support Actor: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners” – Looking at this distinguished, 82-year-old man, you’d probably never imagine him in the role of Ewan McGregor’s gay father, still teaching his son life lessons from beyond the grave. But the moment Plummer and his purple sweater take to the screen, you cannot help but feel the pain, love, and happiness emanating, grabbing you in a chokehold and shaking you until your emotions are just as scattered as the plotline.

Missing: Uggie (The Artist) and Cosmo (Beginners) …I know, people have been fighting for an animal category, but to no avail. The Academy should truly consider it, though. Often times, you can’t even train a human to act half as well as these two.

Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, “The Help” – How Melissa McCarthy made it into this category, I will never know. Men can make fart jokes and people find it crass and rude, but women do the same thing and they are seen as groundbreaking artists? McCarthy defecated in a sink. If you’re going to reward anyone’s bowel movements, the gold has to go to Octavia Spencer. Her storyline added to the comedic undertones of The Help, and her scenes with fellow nominee, Jessica Chastain may have been the most heartwarming, human segments throughout the entire film.

Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” – We all have that longing, at one time or another, to visit another time—a time we believe to be simpler than our own. Midnight in Paris explores such themes in the most enchanting way, incorporating the magic of a cultural revolution and the power to time travel in a way that proves we’re not all that different from our predecessors.

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Logan, “Hugo” – I will admit that I have not seen any of the films in this category, so I am going to predict based on hearsay alone. As I’ve been told, I will probably like Hugo very much. And looking through the other titles, I’m pretty sure I will like Hugo best. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind when I can make an educated assessment, but by that time, no one will care.

Best Director: Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life” – Remember all those people who demanded their money back because The Tree of Life just wasn’t what they expected? Let’s hope the Academy isn’t quite so dumb. We all know it won’t win Best Picture. Too abstract, most likely. It leaves much up to the imagination, which is probably why the majority of our population couldn’t handle its contents. (See “dumb” remark above.) Beautifully done, this visual masterpiece evokes an array of emotions, all while pleasing the eyeballs with its outstanding imagery. Has Terrence Malick ever won anything, anyway?

Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, “The Artist” – This man oozes charm like the Blob through a shower drain. Regardless of the film’s subject matter, Dujardin exudes the sort of charisma not seen since Gene Kelly, and he has the dancing shoes, too. He manages to create a character of depth and emotion without words. That’s pretty powerful in a time where most films revolve around spectacle, not storyline. Here’s hoping he makes his way into more American films. We could use someone with talent.

Missing: Adam Sandler, “Jack and Jill” …What? Oh, that’s right. Please see The Razzies for details.

Best Actress: Viola Davis, “The Help” – What this all boils down to is a battle between Meryl Streep and Viola Davis. Streep is nominated because, somewhere along the way, she convinced the majority that she’s the greatest living actress (Mamma Mia notwithstanding, it would seem). Viola Davis is nominated because she dominated The Help. When you can feel a character’s emotions tug at your heartstrings, you cannot help but get swept up in the film itself. Streep is just a big name; Davis is a winner.

Missing: Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” …There’s a reason why this young lady has breathed new life into the Olsen name. While I doubt many saw this movie (yet), she proves that her range reaches much further than “You Got It, Dude” and “Don’t Call Me Squirt”. No, you don’t actually have to give her the award—she’s young, she’ll bounce back—but a nod certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Best Picture: “The Artist” – Never have I ever seen a film that approaches the “out with the old, in with the new” adage quite like this. Here, Hazanavicius addresses the encroachment of technology while using one of the oldest forms of modern visual storytelling. By breaking things down into their simplest form, The Artist employs minimal effects and focuses on the story without ever losing you attention. You’d be surprised how much one movie can say despite its sparing use of words.