The movie industry has come a long way since its beginning in the 1890’s. New developments in equipments have emerged, genres have grown and expanded, and the industry makes billions each year with its films. Many things have been improved, including the portrayal of minority characters on screen. Equality with the actors themselves and the characters they have portrayed has been a defining feature. Going away from supporting roles and getting more and more lead parts, black actresses and actors are no longer being overlooked, like they had been in the past. Seeing the evolution in change from Birth of a Nation, to award winning films, like Hidden Figures, it is great to see how the industry has changed for the better. I chose to focus on this area because of a Ethnicity in Film class that I took and it is an area that I really enjoyed learning about. It is sad to think how people were treated in the past, and even with their contributions and accomplishments in movies were still overlooked because of the color of their skin. It is great to see the changes that have been made to allow these actors and actresses to be given the parts they deserved, and parts that are not offensive and are great role models for those who watch it.
Movies have come a long way in history and Hidden Figures is a great example of that. While having three, serious lead roles that portrayed by black actresses, it shows how far the industry has come. In Donald Bogle’s book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, he discusses how black women in the 1980’s rarely had a chance to have role of importance. Instead of having any roles of sustenance, they were casted into flashy roles, such as “Tina Turner, in metal-meshed mini dress, as Aunty Entity in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985); [and] the young sex kitten, Lisa Bonet, used as the most exotic of tragic mulattoes in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987)”(Bogle 263). These women were put into the same roles, just different variations for different movies. Any roles that any value to them were given to white actresses. Hidden Figures is a representation of history that did happen and this movie showcases the it. The movie made sure to focus on Katherine, Mary and Dorothy, not sidestepping them to whitewash the movie by focusing on the others involved like Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), or Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).
There are many communication theories that could explain many aspects of why this racism used to exist in films. Muted Group Theory stood out the most during my research. Muted Group Theory talks about how since “language is man-made women remain reduced and excluded. Because words and norms have been created by men, women are disadvantaged in public. As women become less muted and more vocal, the dominant position of males in society will diminish.” (Communication Theories). In research done by Cheris Kramarae, discussing the theory, talks about how “people attached or assigned to subordinate groups may have a lot to say, but they tend to have relatively little power to say it without getting into a lot of trouble” (Kramarae). This theory is shown throughout multiple times in Hidden Figures with the “computers” and the working relationships between the men and the black women. I am looking into this theory specifically in how the group of black women in the movie were treated and the public disadvantages they faced during the time period.
In the movie, Muted Group Theory was shown a lot throughout the movie. It was mainly targeted to the black women, known as the computers, and the treatment they faced from their white male colleagues and even the white women as well. In a journal article, written by Miriam Lieway, discussed the racism and subsequently theory that was shown in the movie between Vivian Mitchell, the white female supervisor to the “computers,” a group of African American women computing calculations. She was the one that constantly turned down the application for any promotions for Dorothy and denied Mary’s application for more engineering training, repeating that is was just the way things were and that they should be happy that they even have these jobs. The article discussed how within the very sexist and racist workplace, Vivian went along with it like it was nothing. She managed the computers in a way that they were dispensable.. The article points this out in how she would speak of “NASA and rules, she used the pronouns we, us, our. When she referred to the Black women she used you or they. Even when asking for help, she could not overcome the mindset that Dorothy was the ‘other.’” (Leiway).
In this movie, there are also parts where the characters are shown breaking the Muted Group Theory to try to overcome the obstacles that are put in their way. There is a paper written by Danyelle T Ireland, and other colleagues on “how students in STEM fields who are members of intersecting marginalized groups have distinctive experiences related to their social identities, other psychological processes, and educational outcomes.” The paper looks into the lives of black and female students and their education. They looked into how the different racialized and gendered experiences influenced the educations that they received. In their analysis, they highlighted “the ways that researchers have employed intersectionality to make the experiences of Black women and girls in STEM education more visible, or ‘unhidden.’” (Ireland). Specifically with Mary, she faced the most discrimination with education, having to go to a judge to get special permission to attend classes at an all white school for graduate-level physics courses. Even though the judge did grant her permission, she had to attend only the night classes, being hidden by the darkness of night. She pushed through barriers to continue her education to land a job that she had a huge passion for and pushing through the gender and racial barriers that were put before her.
Hidden Figures is a contemporary film that shows the hardships of the civil rights movement and segregation in daily life and in the workplace. Katherine Goble (Johnson), Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer, are three woman who fought for their right to be heard in their jobs, working for NASA. During the movie, they have a chance to prove themselves worthy, as well as proving their coworkers that they are wrong about them and the importance of their contributions to put a man in to space. Normal moviegoers may not see all of the importance of this film. Some may see it as another form of entertainment, but it is a part of history that many had not known about beforehand. The cast is also diverse, with three black actresses as the top billed actor/actresses in the movie. This is valuable and shows how Hollywood is expanding in ways to make more diverse films that aren’t just there for comedy, but is there to experience. It is not just the movies that have evolved since its creation, but the people who are involved with it as well. Socially as opinions changed, so did the movies. It is hard to not want to burn all of the horribly racist films from the past, but importantly is is what happened and these old films should not be forgotten, but seen as an example of what we should not return to. Author J. Emmett Winn discusses how “the representation of African Americans in these films within the socio-political context of their times” (Winn) and the changes that the United States government made on its view of racism in filmmaking.
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