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Looking to January’s Real Box Office Heroes for Our Outlook on the Year Ahead

By  · Published on January 17th, 2017

Be the moviegoer you want to see in the world.

January is anything but a dumping ground for movies. Sure, this is a month where hopeless Hollywood junk comes to die (ahem, Monster Trucks), and there are some failed hopefuls, too (Live By Night). But it’s also a month filled with awards-contending leftovers continuing to make their way to the far reaches of the country (see La La Land), including movies that are basically brand new if not for their year-end limited openings.

We’ll highlight the successes of those platform releases once they’ve all gone wide, but here’s one already worth noting above the rest: Hidden Figures opened modestly in limited release on Christmas Day 2016 and became a big hit after expanding in 2017. Immediately it knocked Rogue One: A Star Wars Story off the top spot of the box office chart, and it just dominated again as the highest grosser over the holiday weekend with an estimated $26m.

The story of three African-American women overcoming segregation on the job to be heroes at NASA might have just seemed popular because it’s an appropriate watch for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend. The better narrative is that it’s doing so well this month in general because it’s the beginning of a new year, a time when we’re resolving to be better and looking forward with positive outlooks, seeking inspiration all around.

It’s actually impossible to know exactly why everyone seeing Hidden Figures is seeing Hidden Figures, outside of its critical acclaim, Oscar prospects, and the word-of-mouth buzz that it’s a feel-good charmer that also tells an important story. Still, it is worth considering how it looks that such an optimistic movie promoting equal rights and scientific progress is number one in America at the dawning of the Trump Administration.

Compare it to what became the number one movie after expanding just before the previous White House administration began: Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s fictional drama about an old bigot with a heart of gold. The two movies are as opposite in their protagonists as they are in their year’s respective president-elects. In fact, they’re kind of criss-cross mismatched in their relevance to the incoming cabinets. That happens, though, as the arts often clash with contemporary political climates.

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Going back to previous administration starts, the JFK-honoring Thirteen Days successfully expanded the week before George W. Bush was sworn in as President. The biopics Hoffa and Chaplin were the major films about real people ahead of Clinton’s inauguration (another hit at the time, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, features a cameo from future president Donald Trump as himself), while Larry Flynt (in The People vs. Larry Flynt) and the memory of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers (in Ghosts of Mississippi) were the heroes at the beginning of his second term. Before that, George H.W. Bush moved into the White House as Mississippi Burning, another drama involving a Mississippi-set Civil Rights tragedy, went wide.

But it’s mostly been in recent years that real heroes are relevant box office champs at the start of the year. Obama’s second term kicked off an apparent tradition for expanded releases with real military heroes, primarily Navy SEALs. In January 2013, it was the men and women behind the death of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. The next year gave us the true Afghanistan War story Lone Survivor. Then 2015 brought Eastwood’s phenomenally popular American Sniper, about Iraq War vet Chris Kyle. Last year’s equivalent, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, about the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks, was actually released wide in January.

Although the outgoing commander in chief was anything but a peacetime president, three of those movies are considered to be rather conservative politically. Is it a coincidence that Americans were so interested in such heroes while a Democrat led the country? Will we now see a total switch as a Republican takes over the Oval Office? Is it odd that Patriots Day, the latest, less partisan effort from Berg and his Lone Survivor producer/star Mark Wahlberg, didn’t do too well as it expanded this past weekend?

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There’s no easily determinable reason why that disappointed at the box office any more than it can be explained why Selma wasn’t a bigger hit a couple years ago when it went wider in January (is the Civil Rights of Hidden Figures just more fun?). Or why Disney’s true heroic drama The Finest Hours flopped last year. But if moviegoers are right now hitting theaters for a 56-year-old story of progressive ideas for Earth and beyond because the reality ahead seems so dauntingly regressive, maybe they regularly honor the heroes they want at the start of each new year.

The popularity of Zero Dark Thirty made sense at the start of 2013 as a pat on the back reminder of Obama’s triumph in the War on Terror, and its production starting ahead of his re-election might have been in the consciousness of some voters. Whereas 13 Hours, a story involving an error for the Obama Administration and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, was released at the beginning of an election year rather than at the end of one, and it might have inspired a lot more politically minded ticket buying.

It’s not always political, though, and 13 Hours wasn’t actually last January’s biggest movie about real-life heroes. That would be The Revenant, a fictionalized depiction of Hugh Glass’s incredible survival and revenge story. Maybe you could claim Glass was Clinton, mauled by the Republicans only to be abandoned by many of her own, but no, that’s a stretch. And nobody foresaw that 2016 would be such a long slog. The hero there was really its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, because everyone just wanted to see his struggle to sleep inside a horse, eat raw bison liver, and finally win an Academy Award.

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As for what began 2012, the notable real heroes at the box office then were the Tuskegee Airmen of the George Lucas-produced Red Tails, which would have opened at number one had that year’s Underworld sequel performed as poorly as this year’s has. The protagonists of Red Tails are somewhat similar to those of Hidden Figures, experiencing the racial segregation but not gender issues, too. It was a proper year to lead with historical African-American heroes, as shortly after the movie’s release, the event that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Trayvon Martin, occurred.

Going back further, 2011’s starter box office hero was King George VI and his effort to improve his voice to be a proper leader (in The King’s Speech), but before that it’s primarily entertainers, including football player Michael Oher (The Blind Side) and, sharing theaters with Gran Torino, hip-hop icon The Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious). The year George W. Bush’s second term began, the real box office heroes were a Hollywood player (The Aviator), a basketball coach (Coach Carter), and a playwright (Finding Neverland).

America was definitely too entertainment focused back then, even in its concerns for current affairs (see the rise of comedians as news delivery systems that probably kept Bush in office), and later it should have been apparent that while critics complained of mainly scraps releasing in January each cycle that right-leaning true stories were the ones kicking things off in the latter Obama years.

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Well, we can now pay attention to the success of Hidden Figures and let it be a beacon of change in how we view the first month of the year movie-wise. This isn’t the time to think about let alone consciously dismiss stuff like Underworld: Blood Wars and Sleepless. It’s the time to look at significant pop culture and how it fits into the overall culture, recognizing and celebrating movies all year as motivators of spirit and discourse and action.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.