Hidden Figures

By: Ashley Pitts and Molly Halprin


Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi and based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, is a shocking and powerful film that exhibits the rippling effects of transatlantic slavery, nearly a century after its abolition, and the strides taken by those victims to overcome the barriers. Production took place through 2016, and the movie had a limited release on December 25, 2016, before it’s widespread release on January 6, 2017. It stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe who play three African American women fighting their way through the ranks at NASA during the height of the space race in 1961— a time period when the United States still legally enforced segregation. The film depicts the history of NASA/America’s space race and developments in the American Civil Rights Movement, as well as brings the personalities and struggles of the three amazing protagonists to life. As the women experience continuous prejudice and racism inside and outside the workplace, the audience can see more vividly the unequal treatment for the African American women who made more than equal contributions to NASA. The advances made in equality for African American women have grown significantly since long before the times portrayed in Hidden Figures, as well as after the 1960’s.

Historical and Cultural Context

Despite the additional cinematic effects and adjustments made in translating the story from book to film, Hidden Figures provides a generally accurate historical depiction of events in the time of the Space Race as well as the struggles and experiences of the individuals the three female African American protagonists were based off. The film serves as a captivating, new way for viewers to learn about these historical elements as opposed to traditional textbooks and/or documentaries. African American women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have made significant progress over the years, and the film highlights a major “story” in the timeline of this development.

Going back on this timeline to the beginning of the African American experience — in the times of slavery —, an article by Brynn Holland, a member of History.com staff — connected with the more commonly recognized History Channel — describes James Marion Sims who is known as the “father of modern gynecology,” having conducted thousands of experiments without consent on enslaved black women and children. These experiments were based on the racist notion that black people do not have the same human rights nor feel pain the same way white people do (Holland). Through the years, this overwhelmingly racist notion has evidently changed. In the times represented in Hidden Figures, John Glenn, a famous astronaut, refers to Katherine Johnson as the “smart girl” when requesting that she check the numbers to ensure the safety of his space launch, and insists, “If she says [the numbers] are good, I’m ready to go!” While this may not stand out as a crucial turning point in the film, the statement displays the progress made since the times of scientific experimentation on African American women, as the male scientists acknowledge Katherine’s contributions as an equal colleague.

Many of the scenes in Hidden Figures display the unequal resources and treatment of African American women in the workplace. It wasn’t until May 31, 1955, after the Supreme Court reheard the five primary cases having to do with the famous “separate but equal” clause, and the appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice, that the US Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision, referred to as Brown II, instructing states to initiate desegregation plans “with all deliberate speed” due to social scientists providing evidence for the detrimental effects of segregation on blacks and whites (U.S. National Archives). Initially, the states often did not put forth the necessary effort to follow through with the new legislation, as Mary Jackson recognizes in the film: “Virginia acts like Brown vs Board of Education never happened” (Hidden Figures). An article from History.com explains the impacts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of which is the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that files lawsuits on behalf of employees who have been discriminated against. These strides display the acknowledgement of racism that still persists in the workplace as a long-lasting effect of slavery as well as the continuous effort to equal opportunity for all people.

The unequal opportunities for African American women in education is also evident in the film, Hidden Figures. When Mary Jackson requests to take night classes at the white school, the professor states that “the curriculum is not designed for teaching a woman,” to which Mary replies “I imagine it’s the same as teaching a man” (Hidden Figures). This scene in the film displays the barriers that these mathematicians must face not only as African Americans, but also as women in a male-dominated field of work and study.

Themes and Style

While Hidden Figures takes place over five decades ago, the meaning still resonates today in the examples of how African Americans in society experience prejudice and racism. Many major literary and artistic creations work to connect the past with the present; Hidden Figures is the perfect specimen to further analyze this connection, as it presents a kind of “middleground” between the times of slavery and the ongoing issues of racism in today’s society.

Hidden Figures serves as an onscreen display for many themes of inequality based on race and gender, but especially the impeding of African American women’s aspirations in the sciences in the 1960’s. In the movie, Karl Zielinski, the senior aeronautical engineer, encourages Mary Jackson to pursue a career as an engineer. Jackson retorts, “Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.”

In response, Zielinski then describes himself to be “a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp… [Now] standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars” (Hidden Figures). Zielink continues, “And I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?” (Hidden Figures).

Mary Jackson’s simply and powerfully answers: “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one” (Hidden Figures).

In this clip from Hidden Figures, Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe, is admiring the shuttle and speaking with Mr. Karl Zielinski, who encourages Mary to become an engineer. Mary states that if she were a white male, she wouldn’t have to wish to be an engineer because she would already be one; Hidden Figures. Directed by Theodore Melfi, performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, 20th Century Fox, 2016.

Upon reflection and further encouragement, Jackson decides to shoot for the impossible; she is going to become an engineer. After overcoming the mental barriers associated with an African American woman pursuing such a career path, Jackson finds many more obstacles including needing to attend a white university to complete her courses for becoming an engineer. She has to petition the city in order to complete the classes with white students, and wins.

To emphasize the disparity in working conditions between white and black individuals in the 1960’s, the directors of Hidden Figures decided to create a powerful scene where the lead protagonist Katherine Johnson, standing sopping wet from having to run through the rain, is questioned in front of everyone on this NASA division’s team, “Where the hell have you been? Where the hell do you go everyday?”

Johnson’s powerful monologue is what follows:

“There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” (Hidden Figures)

When Katherine is asked to explain her long periods of time away from her desk, she acts in a manner that shows the white men at NASA that she is more than a computer. Katherine’s actions put the unequal hardships that the African American women faced at NASA on a daily basis into perspective for all the men at NASA who see her as inferior. She explains she cannot afford the required pearls on the low-grade salary an African American woman receives, and since nobody will use the same resources as Katherine, she has to drink coffee from a separate lower-quality container as well as walk a mile just to use a restroom. Despite working as hard as, if not harder than, as well as smarter than most of the men, Katherine receives inferior treatment as an African American woman at NASA.


In this clip from Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is at her work in NASA and walks over to get coffee for herself when she notices the strange looks from her white coworkers. The following scene displays the addition of a colored coffee thermos to the office’s coffee table; Hidden Figures. Directed by Theodore Melfi, performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, 20th Century Fox, 2016.

Through viewing the three ladies’ struggles as they face discrimination in their everyday lives, the audience of Hidden Figures sees, firsthand, the continued effects of slavery on the personal and professional lives of African American women.

Critical Conversation

Hidden Figures raises many important questions that have become of critical conversation since its debut in 2016. Now that people from all areas of the world have watched or heard of the major themes in Hidden Figures, having gained a more thorough understanding of how race influenced education and work experience in 1960’s America, a major question arises: To what extent does race still play a role in education and the professional world?

Various critics have analyzed these relationships. In an academic journal by Diane Hughes and Mark Dodge, a study conducted found that the everyday interactions African American women encounter in the workplace have the largest effect on their job satisfaction. In the study, African American women reported moderate levels of both institutional discrimination and interpersonal prejudice, and reported that interpersonal prejudice is the largest determinant of job satisfaction. This study explains the importance of reducing the prejudice and bias that remains in the workplace to in turn improve the everyday experiences of African American women as employees in all fields. The study by Hughes and Dodge shows that these prejudiced interactions in the workplace. Another study, which was published in 2005 in the Sociological Forum, collected data from 1,744 people of similar backgrounds regarding education, money, time working within the company, and family structure (Wilson et al). This study determined that African Americans experienced layoffs almost twice as much as White individuals. While the struggles of the average African-American woman today may seem little in comparison with the Hidden Figures representation of 1960’s America, the film brings these continuing struggles to light and, as shown by the studies described above, the disparities between white and black, male and female persist.

The Duke Today Staff interviewed Duke physicist Ayana Arce to gain more insight into these ongoing issues in relation to Hidden Figures and contemporary society. Arce, as a successful African American woman in STEM, expressed that “between the time that was portrayed in the movie and now, so many of the institutional barriers to women and minorities participating fully in these kinds of scientific enterprises have been broken down… And although there is still a ways to go in terms of making a completely inclusive and diverse environment for people working in these fields, the fact that we can all contribute together in these kinds of enterprises is really important.” Based on her physics background, Arce understands that in order to solve big problems, people must be accepting and supportive of everyone — the best and brightest individuals come from all different kinds of backgrounds and must be able to work together despite any differences they may have to produce the best outcomes.

America has made great strides towards the equality of African American women in the STEM fields, education, and the workplace as a whole. However, America and the world has much further to go.

Works Cited

Duke Today Staff. “The Importance of ‘Hidden Figures’.” 2017. Duke Today, https://today.duke.edu/2017/02/importance-hidden-figures

History.com Staff. “Civil Rights Act of 1964.” 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-act.

Holland, Brynn. “The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Slaves.” History Stories, 2017, http://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves

Hughes, Diane and Mark A. Dodge. “African American Women in the Workplace: Relationships between Job Conditions, Racial Bias at Work, and Perceived Job Quality.” American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 25, no. 5, 1997, pp. 581-599, doi:10.1023/A:1024630816168.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. “Documents Related to Brown V. Board of Education.” Aug 15, 2016 edition, 2016. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/brown-v-board

Wilson, George and Debra Branch McBrier. “Race and Loss of Privilege: African American/White Differences in the Determinants of Job Layoffs from Upper-Tier Occupations.” Sociological Forum, vol. 20, no. 2, 2005, pp. 301-321, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4540896.

Further Reading

Blitz, Matt. “The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures’ and the Women Who Crunched the Numbers for NASA.” http://Www.popularmechanics.com, Hearst Communications, Inc, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a24429/hidden-figures-real-story-nasa women-computers/.

Filipovic, Jill. “What Victory Will Look Like for Feminists in 2018.” 2018, http://time.com/5158952/feminism-goals-struggles-2018/.

History.com Staff. “The Space Race.” 2010, https://www.history.com/topics/space-race.

Patten, Eileen. “Racial, Gender Wage Gaps Persist in U.S. Despite Some Progress.” 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/01/racial-gender-wage-gaps-persist-in-u-s-despite-some-progress/.

Scriven, Olivia A. “The Politics of Particularism: Hbcus, Spelman College, and the Struggle to Educate Black Women in Science, 1950-1997.” School of History, Technology, and Society of the Ivan Allen College. Doctor of Philosophy in the History and Sociology of Technology and Science, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2006.

Keywords: Hidden Figures, feminism, African American, NASA, black history, sexism, segregation, 1960s, mathematician, John Glenn, space race