“Hidden Figures” by Theodore Melfi – Movie Analysis

Released in December 2016, Hidden Figures is a drama film that is primarily based on the documentary book with the same title by Margot Shetterly. The movie’s plot centers on the career progression stories of prominent African-American female mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson and her friends Dorothy and Mary. Despite unit segregation and the remaining prejudice against black women in STEM, Katherine and her colleagues manage to help NASA to keep up with the USSR at the times of the Space Race.

Katherine Johnson’s experiences and reactions demonstrate that she does not have illusions regarding equality in everyday life and career development opportunities for the representatives of her race. Similarly to many individuals that find themselves in the situations of uncertainty, she often hides worries about her and her friends’ perspectives in space science mathematics behind jokes about segregation and racism. In one scene, after the women’s car breaks down in the middle of the road, Katherine offers Mary to sit in the back of the bus to be on job on time (Hidden Figures). Additionally, during an encounter with a white police officer, Katherine understands that Mary Jackson is too brash for a black woman and that it could get them in trouble, including a jail sentence (Hidden Figures). Her negative anticipations turn out to be correct, and the officer treats them as criminals instead of offering help. Only the fact that Katherine and her friends are helping the nation to build the reputation of the world’s leader in space exploration changes his mind. Thus, Katherine understands that a black woman has to be exceptional to get fair treatment.

In the early 1960s, Katherine’s workplace, the Langley Research Center, is segregated by both race and sex, which strengthens racial prejudice and creates artificial barriers between the protagonist and white employees and supervisors. Initially, Katherine and her black female colleagues work in rooms with the “Colored Computers” signs and are not supposed to approach white colleagues whenever they want (Hidden Figures). White supervisors, however, have access to their rooms and pay them short visits to assign new tasks to human computers. During these visits, the impact of racism on these women’s promotional opportunities is often confirmed. For instance, with an indifferent expression on her face, Vivian Mitchell confirms that bureaucratic barriers to professional recognition for black computers and supervisors are not something to worry about (Hidden Figures). The unjustified segregation cannot go unnoticed for Katherine and her self-esteem as a professional, especially after being allowed to join the Space Task Group.

Katherine’s skin color acts as a critical factor in the first impression that she makes on her white colleagues. Having outstanding skills in Cartesian geometry, Katherine is allowed to join the entirely white Space Task Group to work on trajectory calculations. When providing Katherine with instructions, Vivian Mitchell tells her that she is not supposed to talk to Mr. Harrison, the supervisor, unless he asks her anything (Hidden Figures). Worse still, Vivian articulates that sending a black woman to fulfill this job involves substantial reputational risks for her department, so Katherine should not embarrass her (Hidden Figures). Vivian’s warnings are not without reason, and Katherine becomes the victim of racist stereotypes in an instant when she enters the Space Task Group Department and is mistaken for a janitor (Hidden Figures). When seeing Katherine for the first time, Mr. Harrison asks whether she actually handles coordinate geometry, thus showing that the selected person runs counter to his stereotypical expectations. Despite having the proof of Katherine’s applicability for the position, white colleagues do not welcome her and look very skeptical even when they do not make explicitly racist comments.

As the first black woman in her team, Katherine has to deal with covert aggression and misunderstanding from colleagues. Paul Stafford, a chief engineer of the department, seems to be humiliated because it is a black woman who is supposed to put his data in the right shape and prevent further mistakes. He allows himself to be rude to Katherine without crossing the line, for instance, by throwing documents on her desk instead of passing them as colleagues usually do (Hidden Figures). Paul voices protests when Mr. Harrison demands to let Katherine work with all classified information about the Atlas family of space launch vehicles or when Katherine dares put her name as Paul’s co-author (Hidden Figures). Apart from professional envy, this reaction could demonstrate Paul’s attempt to retain his superior status as a white male specialist and resist change, including extending black professionals’ authority. Unlike her white colleagues, Katherine can be given strange looks to just for getting herself a drink or taking a break. Together, these minor incidents almost cause Katherine a breakdown, but she finds the strength to continue hard work.

To sum up, by showing Katherine’s and her friends’ everyday experiences as black female mathematicians working for the NASA, Hidden Figures reveals barriers to career progression affecting black women of the 1960s. At first, probably due to outdated beliefs about the links between intelligence and race, Katherine’s white colleagues struggle with accepting her as an equal despite her skills. Even though her achievements do not eradicate racism, Katherine manages to earn respect among white colleagues, thus challenging their worldviews.

Work Cited

Hidden Figures. Directed by Theodore Melfi, 20th Century Fox, 2016.