In honor of Black History Month, and several movies that are proven commodities in the wonderful world of capitalism, let’s talk about some numbers.
And then we'll talk about whether recognizing one-twelfth of a calendar year tells even a fraction of the story.
“Hidden Figures,” one of this year’s nine films nominated in the best picture Academy Award category, grossed $121 million in its first 45 days. The box office tracking site boxofficemojo.com offers some comparisons: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a 2013 success, hit $110 million in the same period.
A period drama (with a fair amount of comedy, and an array of excellent actors) about the African American “computers” in the early days of the space program, “Hidden Figures” recently passed “La La Land” to become the highest-grossing best picture nominee. If you consider the international box office success thus far of “La La Land” ($270 million worldwide, including the U.S. take), “La La Land” still heads the list. But “Hidden Figures” has done extremely well, proving the skeptics wrong. I was mixed on it; I think the superb actors transcend the more synthetic qualities of the direction and the script. But the audience appeal is huge.
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Weirdly, “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land” have something in common. They were produced in the $25 million- to $30 million-budget range. (So was “Fences,” a solid hit as well.) The midsized Hollywood movie was supposed to have fallen out of favor. A media conglomerate’s stockholders are more comfortable with franchises and stuff they already know. They favor the $200 million to $300 million product that stands a chance at making a billion or so, where everyone’s wearing superhero tights.
But these other films have performed heroically as well.
So has “Moonlight,” my favorite film of 2016. Writer-director Barry Jenkins waited eight years between his highly promising first feature film, “Medicine for Melancholy,” and his second, “Moonlight.” Made for an estimated $5 million, it has grossed nearly $20 million in theaters and will be available on DVD and streaming platforms Feb. 28. I offer that date advisedly; it’s worth seeing on a larger screen.
One more set of figures. The James Baldwin documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” encompasses a wealth of civil rights-era history inside the account of the literary giant’s unfinished 1979 remembrance of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Like “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight,” it’s up for an Academy Award (in the feature documentary category). And people are turning out for it, audiences of all colors, uptown, downtown.
“It’s tough for a documentary to cross over to a multiplex audience,” says Neal Block, head of distribution for Magnolia Pictures. “But this one’s a real surprise.”
In New York City, “I Am Not Your Negro” is playing strongly with white and black audiences, and “our biggest gross,” Block notes, “was up at the Magic Johnson theaters in Harlem.” In Chicago, the first-weekend box office take was just under $15,000 at five theaters including the Studio Movie Grill Chatham on West 87th Street. On Friday the limited release of “I Am Not Your Negro” expanded to 111 screens nationwide, with an eye toward 250 screens this week. Initial projections, according to Block, were in the $2 million range; now it’s looking more like $5 million or higher, which is damned good for a documentary.
“Hidden Figures,” “Moonlight,” “Fences” and “I Am Not Your Negro” engage African American subjects in completely different ways, so much so that it’s patronizing and plain wrong to disallow these movies their enormous stylistic differences. Still, the numbers in this case do not lie. These films were given a chance to succeed, and they succeeded.
Black History Month is a classic American mixed blessing, I think. As a critic and a human being, I resist the implication that black history is best confined to a single month’s commemoration, even if the concept began nobly, as Negro History Week, founded in 1926 by African American historian Carter G. Woodson. We should be further along than this. And now, with the current administration, many in this country feel like we’re rolling backward in time, a time of aggressively Anglo-centric policies and priorities. The quaint Hollywood liberal polemics of another era, on the order of “The Defiant Ones” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” may yet again seem fashionable or aspirational.
The world has moved on, uncertainly but undeniably. Look at the movies we have in our lives, right now. If you have not seen “Moonlight” or “Fences” or “I Am Not Your Negro” or “Hidden Figures,” there is time, and there are opportunities.
And, yes, I suppose it’s true: This is the ideal month.