CultureCinema A Feminist Reading Of Hidden Figures

A Feminist Reading Of Hidden Figures

The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the US space program.

The film Hidden Figures is a true story adapted from the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly. It is centered around a trio of African-American women who worked in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and played an essential part in sending John Glenn to space at a time when there was a Space Race going on between the United States of America and Russia. Their contributions were largely swept under the carpet and went unrecognized until recently.

The fact that their contributions stayed concealed goes on to show how little the contribution of women, especially women of color, mattered regardless of their endless efforts that had put into the mission. A similar pattern is visible in South Asia where women in history have been to a large extent removed from history textbooks or their relevance toned down. Their contributions have either been undervalued or completely invisible, whereas the contributions of men have been celebrated.

Hidden Figures (2016)

Cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae

Director: Theodore Melfi

The film stars three stellar black women – Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae to play the exceptionally skilled, no-nonsense, self-sufficient characters of Katherine Coleman, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson respectively. Based in Hampton, Virginia in the 1960’s, it depicts the deep racism prevalent in the United States at that time. The film does a meticulous job at portraying the realities of black women at the time – from the segregated washrooms and separate utensils to the larger struggles of the ongoing civil rights movement.

The film portrays the intersecting inequalities that impacted the lives of African-American women in the U.S. where class, race and gender all colluded to put them at a disadvantage. When Katherine was assigned to calculate the trajectories of launching and landing of a shuttle, she was expected to abide by a uniform which included pearls to ensure a veneer of class-tinted “respectability”. She received a sheaf of papers from her coworkers which was blacked out in parts, to irk her and keep her out of the loop, which she had to decipher in order to proceed with her calculations. Thus, her capabilities were initially undermined by the men she worked with. Katherine was forced to run across the streets just to access the bathrooms as they were segregated for white women and women of color. The film also took into account how white women sometimes took the role of oppressors too (with the privileges that their class and race accorded them) as they were often seen speaking to the black women in condescending tones.

The film also took into account how white women sometimes took the role of oppressors (with the privileges that their class and race accorded them) as they were often seen speaking to the black women in condescending tones.

The three black women were as capable as any of the white women and men but suffered due to the unfavorable conditions of the time. They were paid less based on their gender and race, which reminds one of how not a lot has changed since equal pay is still women’s top most concern at the workplace and racism and sexism still prevail. They were continually referred to as “computers” that could be discarded when a newer upgrade came along, which shows the extent to which women were objectified then just as they are now.

The storyline is interesting and keeps the viewer hooked with suspense, humour and romance that plays out. Katherine and Johnson’s romance started off with a rough patch as Johnson initially questioned her ability to do her job as he sees it as too “taxing”. However, Katherine held her ground and firmly rejected Johnson until he apologized for his nearsightednesss

One of the most impressive parts of the film was when Katherine raised her voice against the injustices she’d faced as a black woman at the workplace. Her confrontation with Harrison was a very powerful and symbolic moment as it led to changes in the racist behavior and language at the NASA office. Another part that was impeccable was the way Dorothy stood up for the rest of the colored women who were under threat of being unemployed. She managed to collectively organize them and achieve their shared goal.

Although there was a relatively smaller focus on Dorothy and Mary’s stories, one did get a glimpse into their struggles. Mary wanted to be an engineer but had to face many obstacles like her husband’s guilt-tripping for not staying at home with their children, and fighting for the right to be the first black person and woman to attend her all-white grad school where she had to face constant belittlement. She had to make a plea in court where she fought against institutionalised racism by arguing in a very effective way when the judge told her that it hadn’t been done before – she declaimed the importance of being the first black woman to attend an all-white grad school by alluding to the judge being the first in his family to be a part of the armed forces and the first to attend university to iterate her point. She was victorious and was granted the right to attend the all-white grad school.

Dorothy ended up doing the work of a supervisor without receiving the deserving pay for it. The IBM was a program that threatened to take over the jobs of the black women or the ‘coloured computers’. Dorothy’s struggle was having to bear the dismissive attitude of several white women, but being persuasive enough to get her way at her workplace and demand the inclusion of her fellow black woman colleagues by teaching them the way IBM worked.

Hollywood has always had many films such as Iron Jawed Angels and Suffragette that portray the struggle of white upper-class women for their rights, so it was great to see for a change, the black women from history being celebrated and acknowledged.

However, apart from all the great things about the film – what was slightly problematic was the part where Harrison, the white savior, broke down the segregated washrooms despite never acknowledging his initial ignorance of the injustices that Katherine had to face. Apparently this incident never even happened in real life. There are also a few other factual discrepancies in the film.

The leading lady along with the supporting actors do an incredible job in keeping the viewer hooked with their stories. The film has gone on to be nominated for three categories in the Oscar Award 2017: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) and Writing Adapted Screen Play.

If you haven’t watched the film yet, now is the time. Go!

Related Posts

Skip to content