It’s funny how in 13 episodes of “From the Earth to the Moon,” the HBO mini-series that chronicled the NASA program that built a space program from nothing to landing men repeatedly on the moon (and more) I don’t remember hearing or seeing anything about the groundbreaking role played by a group of black women in achieving that nie-impossible goal. But that’s exactly the story that’s being told in the new movie Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe.
The three play Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson (respectively), three incredibly talented women who are recruited into NASA at the height of the space race to help with land a man on the moon. Their experience with complicated, cutting edge math – they’re referred to as human “computers” – is essential to making that happen since no one knows just what the problem that needs to be solved is. So new points of view are necessary. But this being America in the 1960s, the three face pushback from many fronts because of both their gender and their race.
The first poster, debuting around the same time as the first trailer, lets you know exactly what you’re in for. All three of the leads are seen striding toward the camera, confident and fearless, a NASA symbol on the floor under their feet. It’s clear they’re walking through some sort of hanger or other complex and a rocket can be seen launching in the background. So between all of that and the period wardrobe the three are wearing the one-sheet does a good job of establishing both the premise and the setting, especially when you factor in the copy, which reads “Meet the women you don’t know, behind the mission you do. It’s great.
A few character posters were next, showing the three main characters who each got their own inspirational phrase that spoke to gender, race or courage. This is a great way to show off each of the lead actresses and reinforce the themes of the story in the minds of the audience.
The theatrical poster tells us “Genius has no race. Strength has no gender. Courage has no limit.” That all sums up the themes of the movie pretty darn well. It’s paired with photos of the three leads as well as smaller pictures of supporting players like Jim Parsons, Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst.
The first trailer immediately introduces us to Katherine as a young child as we’re told, along with her parents, that she has an extraordinary capability for math and calculations. Fast forward to her as an adult as she, Dorothy and Mary have car trouble on their way to NASA, leading to a police officer dropping some casual racism about that particular situation. That kind of attitude – that not only are they women but black women – is continued throughout the trailer as we see them encounter one white man-made roadblock to being taken seriously after another, despite them being part of the team that’s trying to put a man on the moon in the very near future. They deal with all of that as well as other societal expectation about a woman’s place in the world as they try to be taken seriously and get what’s due them.
It’s a pretty good trailer, leaning heavily not just on the drama of trying to get a space program (literally) off the ground but also the place society in the U.S. was in at the time, which was not friendly to black women as a whole, especially not those who worked to rise to a station traditionally seen as exclusively for white men. The performances all look strong but the real draw here is the struggle and the opportunity to see, as we’re told repeatedly, a story many of us had never heard of before.
The next trailer seems a bit tighter, even as it retains the same basic structure. We skip, though, the parts about Katherine’s childhood and skip right to the women breaking down on their way to NASA. We then see much of the same material, as Katherine in particular aims to break down the divides and barriers that are simply part of society in 1961 to get the same treatment as her white male colleagues and be seen as an equal.
Again, this one seems to be a bit more linear and coherent, not trying to cram quite so much into the running time and instead focusing on the core story of one person’s attempts to do her job and contribute to something historic. If anything, this one seems more interested in the space program elements of the story, but the central idea is still one of equality.
Online and Social
The movie gets the usual Fox official website treatment, starting off with a cropped banner of the key art and links to watch the trailer, buy tickets or follow the movie’s Facebook and Twitter profiles.
“Videos” has both trailers, a few clips and lots of behind-the-scenes and other featurettes featuring the story behind the movie as well as spotlights on the cast and crew. The “About” section that’s next has a brief story synopsis as well as cast and crew lists along with more links to the movie’s social profiles, including an Instagram page.
The “Featured Content” section has links to find out more about the soundtrack album for the film and more, including to a site called “Future Katherine Johnsons,” an ode to the real life person played by Henson. It’s a program that’s done in partnership with Black Girls Code and designed to unlock the enormous potential that lies in young black women, exposing them to the possibilities in STEM-related fields. Getting women into STEM is also the point of a program from IBM honoring the women who served as NASA’s computers and the future geniuses who are and should be inspired by them and other trailblazers.
The site finishes up with a “Gallery” of stills, a carousel of the two posters and then a section with links to news about the movie and its cast.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots like this one started airing in advance of release, laying out the story of black women’s role in achieving one of this country’s milestone moments and the struggles they faced while doing so.
There have been some social ads run using the trailers and other videos and it’s safe to assume outdoor and more online ads have been run as well. In terms of promotional partners, it looks like the major ones were the two mentioned above involving Black Girls Code and IBM.
Media and Publicity
Right after the trailer was released it was announced the movie would have its official debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Henson talked a bit here about how she approached the role, which reunited her with math, something she was legitimately scared of because it brought back memories of her past education. That was followed by a big feature that focused on the real women whose stories are being told and talked about the struggles they went through just to do their jobs and the role they played in a huge part of this country’s history.
Spencer’s role and how she got it was the focus of interviews like this one where she talked about being an African-American woman in Hollywood and what that means for the parts she’s offered and accepts. Of course there was lots of talk about about Henson and Spencer getting awards nominations when the time came, which helped add to a mountain of positive buzz and word of mouth around the movie.
The cast continued talking about the movie, the historical significance of the story and the characters they play in press interviews throughout the campaign.
I honestly feel like this movie couldn’t be more 2016 if it tried. At least the marketing campaign couldn’t. It’s all about how women of color have been removed from the narrative of one of the country’s – hell, mankind’s – greatest achievements. If “men get all the credit for something women were an integral part of” doesn’t sum up this past year I’m not sure what does. So the campaign has worked not only to tell people there’s an important story here, but it’s one that’s likely repeated daily as men talk over their female colleagues and mansplain what’s it’s “actually” about. For that reason, the movie is likely to become a lightning rod as one group claims the story as their own and the other complains how it downplays the contributions of white men. I’m guessing the phrase “white genocide” may even come up in one or two Facebook comments.
All that aside, it’s a good campaign that does shine a light on a story few of us know about but which deserves to be more widely known. It dips into shiny maudlin territory a bit here and there as it presents that story, but that’s a small complaint and it’s more than balanced out by the performances on display.