The Real Reason People Are Praising 'Hidden Figures' Has Nothing to Do With the Plot

December 29th 2016

The film "Hidden Figures," is generating a lot of discussion on social media, but the reason people are talking about it isn't solely because of the plot. 

The 20th Century Fox film, which will be widely released on Jan. 6, has been receiving praise because the leading black actresses aren't portraying the stereotypical roles of a slave or a maid. It stars Taraji. P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae as three women who worked for NASA as mathematicians during the civil rights movement. 

Even more notably, the film's poster features the leading ladies most prominently, while their white counterparts, including actor Kevin Costner, are in the background and only have supporting roles in the overall film. 

Hollywood has received criticism for its history of slave narratives and putting black characters in menial domestic jobs, with The Daily Beast calling 2013 "The Year of Slavery Film" because the industry released seven movies focused on the subject.  

“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book "Hidden Figures," told Smithsonian Magazine in September about the real-life NASA employees Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who are portrayed in the movie. 

It's rare to see a black female lead in a major studio film. 

Researchers at the University of Southern California analyzed 700 of the most financially successful films, including more than 30,000 characters, between 2007 and 2014. Only 30 percent of the characters who actually speak, were women, and of the 100 films analyzed in 2014 only 21 had a female lead or co-lead. 

Furthermore, the study found that 73 percent of the characters from 2014 films were white, and only 17 out of 100 films had leads or co-leads that were non-white. 

While representation matters, diversity in the stories being told also matters. 

Snoop Dogg, posted an Instagram video in May about his disgust with slave roles for black actors. The rapper's comments were directed at the "Roots" reboot, which aired on the History Channel that same month. 

"When are y'all going to make a motherfucking series about the success Black folks is having?" he asked. "The only success we're having is 'Roots' and '12 Years a Slave' and shit like that huh? Fuck y'all, I ain't watching that shit."

There have been people on social media who have pointed out that slave narratives should be told because it's an important part of American history.  

Spencer, who plays the NASA mathematician Vaughan in "Hidden Figures," and won an Academy Award in 2012 for playing a maid in "The Help," said that the film is a new kind of black narrative that needs to be told. 

"There is cognitive dissonance when I think of African-American women at that time and their contributions at that time," she told Variety. "There is no precedent for this movie. Even with 'The Help,' it was three African-American maids with the protagonist being a white girl. It has not been done."

RELATED: The Reason Snoop Dogg and T.I. Are Now the Focus of the 'Slave Narrative' Debate

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