'Hidden Figures' Math Heroines Add Up to Unlikely Hit for Fox

  • It’s the top U.S. draw among this year’s best-picture nominees
  • Film highlights three black women at NASA during space race

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history in Hidden Figures. Photographer: Hopper Stone/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

It’s unprecedented for a film about a black, female mathematician to make it to the big screen. “Hidden Figures” features three of them.

The movie, released in December, is proving an unlikely critical and box-office success for 21st Century Fox Inc. It’s garnered three Oscar nominations, including for best picture and supporting actress for Octavia Spencer. While not the favorite to take the top award Sunday night, “Hidden Figures” has already won in a sense, generating $167.6 million in worldwide box-office receipts on a production budget of $25 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

With the under-representation of women in the film business an ongoing cause in Hollywood and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign targeting the dearth of Oscar nominations for African-Americans over the prior two years, “Hidden Figures” could prompt studio executives to pursue more films with unconventional heroines, according to Mimi Valdes, an executive producer of the film. She said its box-office performance was well beyond expectations.

“That just goes to show people are looking for different types of material,” Valdes said on a panel Wednesday night at the Los Angeles Press Club, where “Hidden Figures” received the organization’s Veritas award for best film based on a true story. “This was such a unique story that we haven’t seen. We’ll probably see more of it.”

“Hidden Figures” follows three black mathematicians hired by the predecessor to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the start of the space race in the 1950s. The real-life heroines -- Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson; Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Spencer; and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae -- provided calculations and engineering work necessary for such celebrated missions as Alan Shepard’s first manned flight by a U.S. astronaut.

Back Story

As is often the case with artier films, “Hidden Figures” has a story behind the story. Its earliest champion was Donna Gigliotti, a producer of the 1999 best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” which got a best actress statuette for Jennifer Lawrence in 2013. Gigliotti optioned the story based on a proposal from author Margot Lee Shetterly, who hadn’t even finished her book.

About 30 percent of the production employees were women. That’s a high number, according to Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive officer of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

“This is a movie that was made for a good price and it’s profitable,” Di Nonno said. “Having this as an example can help the pipeline for other historical stories and other stories with multiple female leads.”

The bigger surprise was that Fox approved a film about three black, female math wizards to begin with. Elizabeth Gabler, president of the studio’s Fox 2000 unit, which specializes in movies from book adaptations, said she cried on her first reading of the script and knew immediately the company should back it. “Waiting to Exhale” meets “Apollo 13” was how they jokingly described it internally.

“Even the most hardened, jaded grips said, ‘I can’t believe we’re making this movie,’” Allison Schroeder, who co-wrote the script and is up for an Oscar with director and co-writer Theodore Melfi, said on the panel.

Young Audiences

The film has drawn a high percentage of young viewers and many who don’t go to theaters often, in part because its themes of history and friendship appeal to a wide audience, Gabler said.

While Fox 2000 has produced offbeat fare such as “The Fault in Our Stars,” about kids with cancer, and “Life of Pi,” about a young Indian man trapped on a raft with a tiger, the success of “Hidden Figures” is inspiring Gabler to continue to take risks. One upcoming project, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” chronicles the travails of a closeted gay teenager.

Even so, movies like “Hidden Figures” will continue to face tall odds, said Joseph Pichirallo, chair of the undergraduate program at New York University’s Kanbar Institute of Film & Television.

“The bottom line is the Hollywood system is not geared to make these kinds of movies,” Pichirallo said. “Studios years ago put all their emphasis on making blockbusters, global movies that play all around the world. ‘Hidden Figures’ is an aberration.”

Like many nonfiction films, “Hidden Figures” took some liberties. A scene where Monae got her heel caught in the grating of a wind tunnel actually happened to the co-writer Schroeder’s grandmother, who worked at NASA. Astronaut John Glenn really did ask for Johnson to double-check his reentry coordinates, just not when he was on the launchpad.

In the best-picture race, “Hidden Figures” is up against two other films that feature black casts: “Moonlight,” a male coming-of-age film, and “Fences,” based on the August Wilson play about a Pittsburgh garbage collector who dreamed of a baseball career. “Hidden Figures” has generated the highest domestic sales of the nine best-picture nominees, including favorite “La La Land,” which leads internationally.

Chalk that up to the appeal of the film’s everywoman stars, whose impact could be felt long after the Academy Awards ceremony ends. Movies featuring scientists can go a long way in motivating filmgoers to consider careers in science, said Sidney Perkowitz, professor emeritus of physics at Emory University, who has written extensively about science in film.

“Studies also show that role models are tremendously important for people to feel ‘I can do that too!’ in areas where their groups are underrepresented,” he said. “Will it also motivate Hollywood or independent filmdom to tell other great science stories that inspire African-Americans, women or other groups toward rewarding careers while scoring big at the box office? An Oscar win for the film would go a long way toward making that happen.”

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