In a decade where racism and sexism were rampant, the structure of society in the 1960s greatly restricted the potential of African-Americans and women. Racial segregation of access to provisions, amenities, services and opportunities were present nationwide. Women and African-Americans possessed “inferior” positions in academia, social, and political circumstances. Immense violence towards African-Americans occurred frequently and racism was openly practiced and preserved in law. In the 1960s, African-Americans worked towards outlawing racial discrimination during the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement. Virgina, a southeastern United States state, was in the nation’s spotlight for resistance and monumental civil rights cases. Simultaneously, the race to be the first human in space was in full bloom and brilliant mathematicians were needed. This was the vague social environment in which the movie, Hidden Figures, look place in.
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Written by Medfi and Allison Schroeder, the biographical film Hidden Figures portrays a story concerning three intellectually gifted African-American women who work to make history. The film takes place circa 1960 in Hampton, Virginia, where African-American women nationwide experienced immense racial and sexist discrimination. The three brilliant mathematicians work for NASA, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, during the Space Race of the 20th-century. The Space Race portrays the competitive rivalry between the Cold War opponents, the Soviet Union and the United States, as they contend with one another to gain superiority in space achievements. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) are employed as mathematicians at the Langley Research Center, working to send an American astronaut into space by being the arithmetical “brains” of the project. The beginning of this film shows the African-American women working in a gender and racially segregated building, struggling to be seen for their true potential. As the story unfolds and progresses Katherine is needed elsewhere for her expertise in analytic geometry. At the same time, Mary, an aspiring engineer, is assigned an engineer task, while Dorothy fights for her promotion as a team supervisor. Throughout the film these three characters strive to challenge and overcome simultaneous racialized and gendered experiences in their academic, work, and home environments. Hidden Figures depicts the theory of intersectionality through telling a story about African-American women who have interlocking oppressions.
Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a professor and civil rights advocate, intersectionality is a feminist theory that was originally elaborated to display the oppression of non-white women. The article “The Gender And Media Reader”, written by Crenshaw, stemming from violence towards African-American women, presents intersections between gender and race. Although this article primarily focuses on the overlapping oppressions of race and gender, intersectionality can include all social categories such as class, religion, politics, nationality and more. It is understood that individuals identifying with multiple minorities feel oppression differently and are more marginalized because of these additional oppressions. There is a multi-dimension of oppression and individuals experiencing oppressions simultaneously encounter this complex element. In the film Hidden Figures, the three African-American female characters identify with multiple subordinate groups that perfectly reveal the intersectionality theory.
The film begins with a potential police brutality that seemingly resolves because of the socio-economic class and intelligence the three characters possess. After their car breaks down on the way to work, a police vehicle approaches Katherine, Mary and Dorothy, which initiates a frightened conversation between them. Dorothy expresses “no crime in a broken down car” and Katherine argues “no crime in being a Negro neither” (Melfi). The scene continues with Katherine explaining their situation while the cop, with his hand on a wooden weapon, asserts, “are you being disrespectful? Do you have identification on you?” The cop quickly alters his demeanor once he recognizes they work for NASA and expresses “NASA, now that’s something…the lease I can do is give y’all an escort” (Melfi). After he discriminated against them for their race or gender (it is unknown), the cop recognizes their socio-economic class and academic level. After his surprising realization that the three African-American women worked as mathematicians for NASA, the cop refines his judgement towards them and ultimately worships them. This specific incident shows how racial and/or gender discrimination occurred yet socio-economic class altered the social interaction. After the cop escorts the women to work racial discrimination occurs ubiquitously.
Racial discrimination was bluntly practiced towards all of the African-American characters in Hidden Figures, but primarily towards persona Katherine Goble. After some time working at the racially and gender segregated Langley Research Center, she is needed at a different group for her mathematic skills. Escorted to her new location by a white, female Katherine is warned “they have never had a color in here. Don’t embarrass me” (Melfi). This interaction with a white women working for NASA shows the intersections between race and gender discrimination towards Katherine. As the first African-American allowed in the engineer Space Task Group, Katherine is stereotyped and faced with racial prejudice the moment she walks into her new office. When she walks in a white male hands her a garbage bin and explains “this wasn’t emptied last night”, assuming Katherine was the custodian (Melfi). An article, published in an expanded integrated study, called “Racial Formations”, written by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, describes this assumption as stereotyping. Omi and Winant express that “stereotypes reveal a series of unsubstantiated beliefs about who these groups are and what “they” are like.” This white male stereotyped Katherine as a custodian because his underlying image of what an African-American or women or African-American women should be. When Katherine explains she is working as an engineer not as a custodian, her white, male colleagues crowding the room, become speechless and bewildered. Omi and Winant relate this confusion back to stereotypes by explaining how “we also become disoriented when people do not act “black”” (Omi and Winant, 14). Katherine continues to face her demeaning coworkers and racial prejudice when they permit her only to use a “colored” coffee pot and bathroom (.5 miles away from her work space.) Katherine’s working environment presents more racial discriminations than gender, however; stereotyping her as a custodian shows the existence of the intersectionality theory and the overlapping oppressions Katherine is faced with. In addition to her working community, Katherine also battles sexism in her own neighborhood community.
Katherine and other characters experience sexist prejudice and predetermined gender roles within their community. Katherine meets National Guard Lieutenant Jim Johnson, an African-American male who is flirting with her at a community barbecue after church. As conversations develop and Katherine begins to excitedly share with Jim her job as a mathematician for NASA, Jim interrupts: “they let women handle that…taxing work” (Melfi)? Jim expresses sexist remarks and opinions towards Katherine because of her gender which adds another dimension to Katherine’s oppression. As Jim possesses preconceived notions of women and their work ability, another character in the film experiences prejudged heterosexual gender roles. Although sexual orientation references are limited in this film, gender roles of being a particular wife and mother are present. At the same barbecue, Mary’s husband becomes angry at Mary for giving their children junk food and angrily states “kids need vegetables, you would know if you were everhome” (Melfi). This statement shows the husband’s expectations for a wife and mother in the society.
Based off of a true story, Hidden Figures surfaces the theory of intersectionality throughout the entirety of the storyline. The three main characters shared similar subordinate identities that overlapped with one another, causing multiple dimensions in their oppression. Especially in their working environment, these African-American women were marginalized and obstructed from resources and rights. Katherine, Mary and Dorothy were not treated equally to the other female characters who were oppressed by sexism, which show the intersections of race and gender. These two identities are intertwined closely and cannot be inspected individually. Additionally the film depicts the layers of other social identities including class and gender roles and how these played a role in other layers of minority social stratifications. As Hidden Figures progresses, behavior towards the central characters improve and they seemingly overcome the mistreatment of their colleagues and community members. “Here at NASA we will all be the same color”, expresses the white, male antagonist, as he destroys the “colored” coffee pot and bathroom sign (Melfi). In addition, Jim Johnson apologizes to Katherine for underestimating her and other women like her. Although the end of the film showed improvement of stereotypes and discrimination, Omi and Winant argue that “stereotypes, of racial ideology, seems to be a permanent feature of US culture” (Omi and Winant, 12).
Racial Discrimination in "Hidden Figures". (2020, Apr 14).
Retrieved October 6, 2022 , from
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