Do the math. There’s a reason “Hidden Figures” has grossed $150 million, more than any other best picture contender this year. There’s a reason it pushed past the front-runners to win top honors at last month’s Screen Actors Guild Awards. There’s a reason it’s still playing at about every theater in town and cleaned up in The Star’s alternative Oscar poll.
It’s a great movie. And it makes audiences feel great.
Three incredible actresses play three incredible, real-life women who worked for NASA in the early 1960s: math genius Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson); Dorothy Vaughan (supporting actress nominee Octavia Spencer), who supervises the black women who work as “computers”; and aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae of Kansas City, Kan., in a breakout role).
As we saw years ago in “The Right Stuff,” the space race against the Soviets is spectacle enough for a movie. But these brainy black women are also neck-deep in another ambitious national project: civil rights. In segregated Virginia, they fight for bathroom and coffee pot rights as they vie for promotions and recognition.
Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent”) directs with a sparkling, Oscar-nominated script he co-wrote with Allison Schroeder. The film doesn’t preach, but it sure delivers its message. In one scene, a smug white boss (Kirsten Dunst) tells Dorothy, “You know, despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all.”
Dorothy answers with one of the movie’s best lines: “I know you probably believe that.”
As Mary Jackson, Monae gives the movie its jet propulsion, turning up the sass and charm to spur her colleagues, and herself, to stand up for themselves.
Author Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book containing the never-before-told story the movie is based on, explains the popularity: “It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities — legalized segregation, racial discrimination — there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.” (Veteran producer Donna Gigliotti purchased the film rights to the book just from its outline; she knew a good story when she barely saw it.)
So often, the Academy Awards go against what audiences want and anoint little-seen films that wallow in misery. “Hidden Figures” is entertaining, thoroughly upbeat and, yes, even corny. But this crowd-pleaser also has something to say.
It has all the right stuff.