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Race and Gender in the “Hidden Figures” Movie Essay


Summary of Hidden Figures

Events depicted in the movie Hidden Figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi) are set in the time when the United States competed with Russia to put a man in space. When working on this task, NASA unexpectedly found talented scientists among the group of African-American women-mathematicians who helped the entire organization succeed in reaching its goals. The movie follows the real-life stories of three brilliant and talented women, Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. Because of her skills in analytic geometry, Katherine was assigned to assist the Space Task Group under the supervision of Al Harrison; the woman immediately felt the pressure of her predominantly male white colleagues to perform her tasks quickly and efficiently without attracting too much attention to her persona. Katherine was the first black woman that worked on the team of male engineers in the environment that was quite dismissive of African-American women. Meanwhile, Dorothy was informed that she was not going to get a raise due to her being a representative of the colored group. Mary was able to brilliantly identify a problem in an experimental capsule’s heat shields.

During their work, women had to deal with numerous instances of unfair treatment towards female employees of color, which can be considered the key theme of the movie. Despite this, Katherine managed to get along with her colleagues, who ultimately recognized and praised her for the contributed. Mary convinced the court to allow her to pursue a degree in engineering while Dorothy became a supervisor of the Programming Department. The movie’s epilogue revealed that Katherine Goble was the one who calculated Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle trajectories and later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, the same year when NASA called the Computational Building at the Langley Research Center in honor of Katherine Johnson.

Analysis: Intersectionality of Race and Gender

The literary element of Hidden Figures’ analysis will be focused on the specific theme: the intersectionality of race and gender. The three women depicted in the movie broke racial and gender barriers to meet their professional and personal goals (“Hidden Figures – At the Intersection of Race, Gender and Technology”). In the movie, racial barriers were more evident, like, for example, in the scene with segregated bathrooms. When assigned to help with calculations on the launch of Space Task Group, Katherine had to work on the east campus (Silman). There was a scene when she asked her only female (and white) colleague where the restroom was. The woman replied, “I have no idea where your bathroom is” (qtd in Silman). Because of this, Katherine had to experience the humiliation of running half a mile in heels across the campus to visit a “colored bathroom.” It is noteworthy that the director managed to bring the injustices that women of color experienced down to the personal level, which was reflected in the most basic and routine activities such as going to the restroom.

Discussing the restroom scene within the context of the main theme of race and gender in Hidden Figures is important because it showed the tension between the urgent scientific work and the lack of logic associated with the discrimination that limited Katherine as a woman and a mathematician. In this case, segregation is not only an injustice towards a woman of color but also a barrier that prevented one of the brightest American minds from achieving success. Scenes such as when other engineers put out a “colored” coffee pot for Katherine made modern viewers angry at the injustice and the lack of sensitivity the white men in the department had (Silman). Dorothy also experienced difficulties in being a Black woman in the male-dominated workplace. Throughout the movie, Dorothy’s supervisor Vivian consistently disrespected her and refused to give her the promotion she truly deserved.

However, as the movie progressed, viewers saw the barriers of discrimination against African-American women being destroyed. There was a groundbreaking scene in which Al Harrison (Katherine’s supervisor) broke down the sign that said: “colored bathroom” (Heathman). The scene was symbolic since it represented the desire of NASA as an organization to smash the barriers their Black employees had to face. The three women’s stories may remind viewers of how some people fought for equality in marches of protest while others fought a different battle in office buildings by trying to prove their skills and value to those people who were not better than them in any way (“Hidden Figures – At the Intersection of Race, Gender and Technology”).

Evaluative Conclusion: The Moral Behind Hidden Figures

If to apply Daniel Bonevac’s “Making Moral Arguments” to the analysis and evaluation of Hidden Figures, it is important to differentiate between factual and moral premises that will lead to a conclusion and forming of an argument. In the case of Hidden Figures, the factual premise used for the formation of the government was that African-American women were discriminated against in the workplace, even when working on projects of governmental significance. The moral premise is that mistreating individuals based on their skin color or gender is wrong because these characteristics do not affect their value as productive workers. Therefore, women of color should not experience discrimination, which was the principal argument of Hidden Figures overall. Evaluating the significance of the movie is impossible without stating that discussions about race and gender are still relevant to this day. While African-American women can hold any position in society and achieve success in life, it is important to remember that five decades ago they did not have this kind of freedom.

The understanding of Hidden Figures in the light of watching changed dramatically compared with the first impression because the movie did not resort to over-exaggeration and did not make a mistake of suggesting that racism completely disappeared when the “colored bathroom” sign was removed. It was unexpected since too many movies present a stereotypical scenario of a happy ending without acknowledging the historical facts (Cruz). It is crucial to mention that after Katherine’s, Mary’s, and Dorothy’s success, women of color were still oppressed and perceived as inferior. Even today women of color working in STEM fields are more likely to be forced to prove themselves to their colleagues (Gupta).

To conclude, Hidden Figures is a remarkable story of the victory of intelligence over bias and prejudice. The depiction of the mundane events that occurred in the workplace showed that even the brightest minds were once put in a box and forced to follow the illogical rules that made no sense. It is recommended to watch the movie to enrich one’s knowledge of African-American experiences at the times of segregation of exclusion.

Works Cited

Cruz, Lenika. The Atlantic. 2017, Web.

Gupta, Shalene. Fortune. 2015, Web.

Heathman, Amelia. Wired. 2017, Web.

“Hidden Figures – At the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Technology.” IBM. 2017, Web.

Silman, Anna. The Cut. 2017, Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020, October 2). Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-gender-in-the-hidden-figures-movie/

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"Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie." IvyPanda, 2 Oct. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-gender-in-the-hidden-figures-movie/.

1. IvyPanda. "Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie." October 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-gender-in-the-hidden-figures-movie/.


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IvyPanda. "Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie." October 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-gender-in-the-hidden-figures-movie/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie." October 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-and-gender-in-the-hidden-figures-movie/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Race and Gender in the "Hidden Figures" Movie'. 2 October.

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