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‘Hidden’ Audiences

The civil-rights-era space race drama ‘Hidden Figures’ is the latest in a growing list of films with a mostly black cast doing well at the box office

(20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration)
(20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration)

This weekend, for the second weekend in a row, Theodore Melfi’s civil-rights-era space race drama Hidden Figures topped the box office. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the no. 1 movie of 2016, fell to fourth place. Two musicals — Oscar front-runner La La Land and animated reality-competition spoof Sing — snuck in between.

So, some surprises — namely, the absence of Patriots Day in the top five (in a telling bit of box office hopscotch, the expensive Mark Wahlberg hero vehicle got bypassed by low-budget horror flick The Bye Bye Man) and the momentum of awards-season racehorses Hidden Figures and La La Land, whose commercial triumphs some of us may have hoped for but didn’t quite see coming.

In the case of Hidden Figures, we should have. In terms of quality film releases, January has a somewhat exaggerated reputation for being a dead month, a time for fine-to-embarrassing horror movies or lesser franchises to feel dominant at the box office for a change. These movies (your Underworlds, your Takens) often jostle for space with the biggest December holdovers and awards releases — Rogue One, for example, or American Sniper in 2014. But they don’t have to try too hard to prevail over the true low points at the start of the year, that category of drama whose awards-y polish feels, by January 1, anachronistic — clearly they’d originally been slated to come out before the new year. (See: The Founder, out this week after a brief awards run in December, or Gold, out in two weeks.)

Lately, January has also been a good time for black movies. Or, no, let’s be specific: It’s been good for Kevin Hart movies. Last January, the box office was more or less split between Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant, and Hart’s Ride Along 2, while January 2014 belonged to the first Ride Along, which had a four-week streak that could be broken only by The Lego Movie. Were they considered anything but black movies, Hidden Figures and Ride Along wouldn’t make sense to measure alongside each other. And yet here we are, again, surprised that a black movie — rather, that black audiences — seems to hold some sway.

That’s one reason it’s bittersweet to learn that Hollywood, feeling confident after La La Land’s runaway box office and awards-season success, is apparently launching a new generation of original live-action musicals, something we haven’t seen since, well, the era of classic musicals La La Land so dutifully imitates. That’s good news! Artistically, that era remains one of the most inspired moments in Hollywood’s rich history. There are, in part thanks to Damien Chazelle’s film and the wave of momentum that musicals or near-musicals have lately garnered on TV (Grease Live!, The Wiz Live!, Hairspray Live!, Peter Pan Live! — you get it), 20 movie musicals currently in the works. I’m … not totally sold on the options quite yet, but we’ll get there when we get there.

What, though, about Hidden Figures? When will black movies “get there”? There are, at the very least, exciting new projects to look forward to from the likes of Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, all current or former independent filmmakers at a time when working beyond Hollywood remains the best option for relative outsiders. (That may change: Coogler and DuVernay are now working with Disney.) Anyway, it’s not a one-to-one comparison; musicals are a genre, whereas black audiences are a matter of demographics, and Hollywood has never really known how to take their buying power seriously. It’s still worthwhile to wonder whether, with the recent success of films like Hidden Figures or, on a grander scale, the $202 million grosser Straight Outta Compton and whatever Kevin Hart is up to in a given week, black movies might get the studio backing that black audiences — who are far from the only people to see black prestige films like Hidden Figures — are clearly craving.

No, Hidden Figures ($54 million domestic) hasn’t had quite the global success of La La Land ($74 million domestic, with another $55 million on international release), which had the advantage of being a hyped festival darling in the many months leading up to its release. And, undoubtedly, someone somewhere will be quick to note that a movie about black women simply won’t have the same appeal overseas. (Hart doesn’t seem to have that problem, but comedy is its own beast.) It is inspiring to ring in the contentious political era to come with a movie about black women scientists reigning supreme. Black people love going to the movies. Will Hidden Figures inspire studios to act accordingly?