The box-office success of best picture nominee “Hidden Figures” is as much an underdog story as the one it tells.
When director Theodore Melfi’s look at the black female mathematicians who were vital in getting Americans in space in the 1960s hit wide release in January, industry insiders regarded it as the latest release to get crowded out by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which still at No. 1, showed no signs of slowing down.
Then “Hidden Figures” earned a surprising $22.8 million its first weekend, dethroning “Rogue One” and proving that there’s an audience for a drama that mixes issues of racism and sexism with the dramatic mathematical complexities that went into the US winning its heated space race with the Russians.
“The studio tracking thought we were going to get around a $15 million opening weekend and then it came in at $22 million,” Melfi recently told Business Insider. “Then the next weekend it only dropped 8 percent – the normal is 40 or 50 percent. So those are the things you can’t predict, that is strictly word of mouth.”
Along with the movie getting nominations for best picture, best supporting actress (Octavia Spencer), and best adapted screenplay (Melfi shares it with Allison Schroeder), the response from audiences – with $133.8 million currently, it’s the highest-grossing best picture contender at the domestic box office – proves that “Hidden Figures” is something special.
Melfi admits he still doesn’t fully understand the universal love for his movie, but he does know why it took so long for the story of NASA’s seemingly forgotten African-American female mathematicians to be told.
“There’s the racism of it, the sexism of it – that may be bigger than the racism,” he said. “But the greatest reason is we don’t have parades for mathematicians, we have them for astronauts. That’s a huge thing.”
It dawned on Melfi when he signed on to the project in July of 2015 that all the elements were there to tell a powerful story, but it had been buried for 55 years because the math had to be brought to an audience in a way that would make them care.
Based on the book of the same name, “Hidden Figures” looks at Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who all work essentially as “computers” (what they’re actually called) for NASA. Working in a segregated section at Langley Research Center in Virginia, they constantly run numbers in their cramped office with a dozen other African-American women. But there are whispers of a giant computer called IBM that’s rumored to soon make their jobs obsolete.
- 20th Century Fox
But when the secret Mercury program to get America to space before Russia sets into high gear, Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson prove they are more than their job titles. Particularly Johnson, whose math made astronaut John Glenn’s historic orbit of the earth possible.
And there was the biggest challenge for Melfi: How do you condense the complex challenge NASA had to figure out how to get an astronaut to an orbital flight into a scene movie audiences could understand?
The scene in the finished version is just a brief explanation by Jim Parsons’ character, head engineer Paul Stafford. But to pull that off, Melfi spent a month writing.
“The movie was going to be about math so I had to learn the math. There was no way for me to direct this film not knowing the math or the problem,” Melfi said. “And not just a rudimentary knowledge of it, but really learn it and really articulate it.”
Melfi had several meetings with mathematicians and NASA historians and went through countless drafts of the scene to nail down in layman’s terms the problem the Mercury team faced.
“When I finally finished that scene and sent it in, NASA came back and said, ‘That’s the best depiction on paper that we’ve ever seen of the problem we had.’ But that took a lot of time,” Melfi said.
And that hard work has paid off not just in Hollywood – along with the Oscar nominations, the film won the outstanding cast performance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards – but also in getting the attention of politicians and reminding them of the importance of NASA at a time when it’s up in the air how the program will function during President Donald Trump’s administration.
Along with the movie being screened at the White House before the Obamas left office, Republicans like senator Ted Cruz and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have had screenings of the film, and last week the movie screened on Capitol Hill. Melfi said the DC screening was attended by many from both sides of the political aisle.
“I don’t know if anyone has pushed to get the Trump administration to see the film,” Melfi said, “but NASA is the leader in global warming research and that work is critical to coming up with remedies and solutions. The movie is kind of a wake-up call for people who don’t know anything about NASA.”