by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
Who knew NASA and IBM would be the corporate darlings of this year’s Oscar race? Or, translated into Award Season trivia for 2017, who knew HIDDEN FIGURES from 20th Century Fox, about three NASA human “Computers,” would run up unexpected numbers at the box office and put stars Kevin Costner, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe on the Oscar radar?
The graph looks like this according to The Numbers, an insider box-office tracking service: Dec. 25, 2016 (release date) $515,499; Dec. 26, $831,571. Not impressed? By Dec. 27, the picture barely tops $1 M USD. However, in a five-day period between Jan. 5 and Jan. 10, 2017, in a run up to the Golden Globes, HIDDEN FIGURES goes from $2.5 M USD to $30 M USD. From Jan. 10 to Jan. 15, the picture tops $54 M USD and counting.
While the film took a backseat to singing-dancing LA LA LAND on Jan. 8 at the Golden Globes ceremony, nobody can deny that the film’s bump from being included in that awards show made a huge difference as far as audience awareness, and in turn box office totals.
You may not be a big fan of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or the checkered history of their Golden Globes presentation, but this year the GG’s hit it out of the park for a film that may have stayed hidden had not this show (among others) shined a spot on three remarkable African-American women who helped ushered in a win in the US-Russian Space Race back in the 60’s. The film picked up two nominations, for Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Ben Wallfisch for Best Score, and for Octavia Spencer as Best Supporting Actress in a motion picture.
And now a brief moment to shine a spot on the man of the hour, here, because his star-power helped get this funded by Peter Chernin and other execs at 20th who always need “a name.” From Dances with Wolves to McFarland USA (see it), and now Hidden Figures, Costner is one of the only past or present A-List leading men with an eye on the prize for under-represented groups, including women. McFarland director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) singled him out for this Disney film because he is such a likable barrier breaker and that story is about a Mexican-American community track team that defies all odds.
But enough about Kevin Costner, he won’t get a nomination because Best Actor is a tough field this year, although there may be an honorary Oscar someday for his efforts. So let’s recognize him here and now for helping get some tough-to-fund projects made.
Now back to HIDDEN FIGURES, and why this movie may slip out from behind the pack and take Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards presentation on Sunday, Feb. 26. (Yes, Best Picture.) This movie is adapted from the novel by Margot Lee Shetterley from Harper Collins, and the real title is “The American Dream and Untold Story of The Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win The Space Race.” Written by an actual native of Hampton, Virginia, the book casts a kind light on John Glenn (Glen Powell) whose performance here is noteworthy as he seems both gender-blind and color-blind. Shetterley herself, as described in her bio is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow, as well as “recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing.”
Along with gritty but elegant performances by actors Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Johnson), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), and Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), the film is a visual essay on the power of STEM in changing lives. STEM stands for Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology. It’s a plank in shoring up the American education system that is badly outdated. The notion that back in the 1960’s these real-life women of science (and of color) could have better chances than some women today is not lost on audiences. Hidden figures is a triple pun, their physical figures, math figures, and today’s still-grim stats for women in significant scientific jobs. Plus, the climate of learning in America right now is so consumer-oriented, most people barely know how to balance a checkbook anymore (much less figure payloads to the moon), as most of us live by the random swipe of plastic in a virtual ETF economy that circles the globe.
Melissa McCarthy hosted a Special Screening of this film earlier in the year, meaning it needed word-of-mouth among Hollywood’s creative community too. HIDDEN FIGURES has had music events. Pharrell Williams has a music credit and did a concert in Toronto for TIFF. It has inspired girl-empowerment events, screenings in Atlanta, all over North America, as a sleeper success story during this Award Season.
But back to the actual story. Vaughan just had a building named after her at NASA to commemorate her work, and Octavia Spencer pays off her legacy on her work getting us to the stars with a stellar performance. When was the last time you saw anyone hold up a Fortran programming book on screen and make it look like a way out of poverty. Spencer absolutely inhabits this real-life role as more than credible, but lovable. However, she is stuck in a very tough category for 2017, up against the formidable Viola Davis, who all but owns this supporting awards category for FENCES, the August Wilson screen adaptation of his literary playwriting masterpiece. Let’s just say there will be no Winner and Nominees in that category this year, it’s a win-win all the way around, no matter who takes home the statuette. Taraji P. Henson, who slays in her role as Cookie Lyon as part of HBO’s urban epic Empire, did not even pick up a Golden Globe nom in the TV category on Jan. 8, but her performance in HIDDEN FIGURES is masterful in a different way. While she appears at times hysterical and high-strung as Katherine Johnson in HIDDEN, the reality her character touches is everything about all women in the workplace – from the bathroom to the Boardroom. And this is where the movie really spills out into the actual industry itself. It’s not just about women of color, it’s about all women, because no matter how you slice the stats, the stats are always lumped together as the percentages of females in key roles.
Take a look at the 2015 stats here, released in Feb. of 2016, known as the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment (CARD) from USC’s Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg (IDEA). This excerpt here includes only few major statistical breakdowns on women in general for feature films. Did you know 96.6% of all directors are men, with 3.4% women? Now factor women of color and that 3.4 percent divides again. Out of a pool of 6,421 writers, more than 71% are men, 28.9% are women. And, according to the study, an apologia of sorts, as in “it may also be the case, however, that executives feel more comfortable hiring women directors and screenwriters when the story pulls female.”
How many “executives” are women, you may wonder, to pull off this double miracle of generating more female-driven stories helmed by female-driven hands? Under the heading Top Corporate Executives by Gender and Position, this study reveals fully 81% of Board positions are held by men, while 79% are C-Suite (meaning C-level titles such as CEO, COO, CIO), and even in the ranks of Executive Management, another 81% are men. So we’re looking at a 1-in-5 chance changes will be coming anytime soon, as approximately 20% of the behind-the-scenes decision makers are women.
HIDDEN FIGURES is that 1-in-5 project that got through the system. Directed by Theordore Melfi (St. Vincent (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy)), he shares a screenplay credit with Allison Schroeder. Schroeder is the writer of Mean Girls 2, and credited on Pineapple Express, but she also has a BA from Stanford, and a went to the Producing Program at USC. Her own story is one of education and advancement, another hidden stat rolled up in this remarkable movie.
The box office for HIDDEN FIGURES continues to climb on a sharp curve upward, and this film ranked #1 in the US in popularity this week for a reason. Not because it’s diverse, not because it’s about women, not because it’s about women of color, math, science, space, or technology… because it’s beyond awesome. These three life stories, based on actual scientists from NASA who excelled and were recognized despite segregation in America, have such poignant arcs that the connection to the audience is palpable in the theater. Now let’s see if Oscar voters feel the same pull, not toward the heavens, but toward the real issue facing people here on earth.
Stay tuned for more Oscar predictions… and peruse USC’s CARD study here. Mostly add up HIDDEN FIGURES Oscar chances for yourself, see it now.
SCREENMANCER is a gathering place for people who make movies and go out on a limb handicapping the Oscars.
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