On the surface, "Hidden Figures" shouldn't be a breakout success. Based on statistics, it's surprising that "Hidden Figures" made it to the screen at all.
A 2015 study from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that only 32 of that year's top 100 films centered on a female lead or co-star. Only three of those 32 leads were women of color.
Of those 100 films, 17% of them didn't include a Black speaking character. Furthermore, as The Hollywood Reporter found, the majority of Black actors and actresses nominated for or awarded Oscars portrayed kingpins, addicts, slaves, or maids.
"Hidden Figures" has busted these stereotypes to lead the box office and garner critical acclaim.
However, for many Black critics, reporters, and scholars, it is unsurprising that the movie has been so successful.
Dr. Darnell Hunt, the director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies, told Revelist that "Hidden Figures" should've been considered a guaranteed success from its inception.
"I think that there's a lot there in terms of the women leading the film who just happen to be African-American, which is unusual," he said. "Octavia Spencer, she’s of course has been in great films. Taraji P. Henson is a huge television star now on one of the top shows on television. She’s also been nominated and been in other films that are big. Janelle Monáe is a huge pop star."
The star power of the cast combined with the influence of Pharrell Williams, who produced the movie's soundtrack, is part of the reason "Hidden Figures" is a success.
There's another important reason though, according to Hunt: The movie appeals across demographics.
"It's a film about women. It’s not just about African-Americans. It's about women. I think it particularly appeals to female audiences as well."
Exit polling data supports Hunt's observation. Moviefone reported that 43% of "Hidden Figures" viewers were white, 37% were Black, and 13% were Hispanic in its opening weekend.
Film producer Donna Gigliotti optioned Margot Lee Shetterly's eponymous book on the NASA mathematicians. She told The Los Angeles Times that she knew "Hidden Figures" would be a massive success.
"I always believed that there was a huge audience for this story," she said. "I am blessed by having investors and a company who let me go and develop anything I get the feeling about. But everybody else thought I was nuts about trying to make a movie about three Black women mathematicians in 1962."
"Hidden Figures" has exceeded commercial and critical expectations — and it should also shift the way movies are green-lit and marketed.
As Hunt explained, films that feature people of color in the titular roles are often considered "niche market movies." "Hidden Figures" might aid in the changing of that perception.
"For example, take Tyler Perry films: The expectation is they'll probably be profitable because they don’t cost that much to make and we know that the Black audience will go and see that film, but hardly anybody else, so that's kind of the expectation," he said. "What was unusual about ['Hidden Figures'] is that it did, up to date, nearly $90 million at the box office, and obviously has appealed to multiple audiences in order to make that much money, so that's not what you typically see."
Henson also spoke to this in her Instagram response to "Hidden Figures" beating "Rogue One" at the box office.
"I have been told my entire career Black women can't open films domestically or internationally," she wrote in her Instagram caption. "Well, anything is possible. Most importantly this proves that people like good material, has nothing to do with gender or race. Agreed?!"
Ultimately, diversity pays, as Gigliotti told The Los Angeles Times.
"It goes to the heart of what I say over and over again, and that is, frankly, that diversity pays — if you make movies that look like the rest of the country," she said. "People want to see their own stories up on the big screen."
"Hidden Figures" tapped into that urgent need to be represented — and is being rightfully rewarded for it.