27 April 2018
The Displaying of 21stCentury Discrimination in Hidden Figures
Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures examines the ongoing effects of racial and gender discrimination by delving into the lives of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. By showing the conditions in which they lived and worked, Melfi offers social commentary on the sexism and racism that these women faced as employees of NASA in the 1960s. Throughout the film, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were not only facing racial prejudices, but also endured quite a bit of discrimination due to their gender. Hidden Figures displays the interconnection of these two types of discrimination, which happens to mirror the same prejudices in which women of color faced in America even as the Civil Rights Movement gained in prominence. But as a film created in 2017, Hidden Figures additionally explores the depths of gender and racial discrimination as an intersectional issue in the 21stcentury.
Although each of the main characters, Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary, have their own instances of discrimination, the film prefaces their collective discrimination at important moments in the film. The film opens with the three main characters encountering a racist cop on their way to work. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary were all on the side of the road trying to fix their broken down car. As minutes pass, a cop finally arrives to the scene to see what the trouble was about. Despite the fact that the women were clearly in need of assistance, the cop was quite aggressive towards them. He steps out of his car with baton in hand as if he is facing up against three criminals. Jokingly, Mary even remarks that it is “no crime being a negro,” which despite its obvious banter, was seemingly a truth for this police officer. To continue with his obvious prejudices, the police officer is incredulous that Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary all work for NASA. He asserts his confusion by saying “no clue they hired…,” leaving audiences wondering about the implications of his comment. It could easily be a comment made towards their race or gender, which was confirmed by the panning of the camera from the cop to the aggravated women. Even though the police officer ends up escorting them to their workplace, the ladies’ initial confrontation with the officer was shaped by harsh comments about their race and gender.
The discrimination put on by the police officer to Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary is remarkably relatable to police brutality in 21stcentury America. Especially in recent years, there have been many cases in which cops have taken unnecessary control of African-American citizens. It seems as if every few months, another innocent African-American civilian is shot and killed, for reasons unknown to the public eye. This has to be due to the racial prejudices surrounding African-Americans, as a large majority of such murders normally involve a young black male being shot and killed. To further the connection between such discrimination from the 1960s to the 21stcentury, we can delve into the case of Sandra Bland. The arrest of Sandra Bland was disturbing enough, as she faced horrific abuse from Texas state trooper Brian Encinia, but even more discrimination surfaced during her stay in prison. She was denied her free calls, which seemingly left her heartbroken and lonely (Nathan, 2016). The prison guard that did not allow her to exercise her basic rights as a prisoner was displaying upmost racial and/or gender discrimination. This specific instance could have been the breaking point for Bland’s mental health, which was deemed unstable by a psychiatrist. In the coming hours after being denied her phone calls, Bland hanged herself from the ceiling of her cell bathroom (Nathan, 2016). Her obvious mistreatment can be a direct link to her suicide, and it is clear that such mistreatment occurred because of her race and/or gender.
Despite the women facing discrimination collectively, they continued to face such discrimination separately, as they lived on different lives at NASA and at home. Mary was the first woman of the original group to face discrimination on her own. As Mary was assigned to the engineering team, she was asked why she does not become an engineer. Her response to such questioning was that she is “a negro woman,” and that she can’t waste her time thinking “of the impossible.” It is obvious, that despite her qualifications as an intellectual worker at NASA, Mary was still unable to achieve such a title due to her race. This was reiterated later in Melfi’s film as Mrs. Mitchell, one of the head employees of the NASA facility, told Mary that her application to earn the job title ‘Engineer’ was denied because she had not received certain classes from an all-white school, which was not possible for Mary for obvious reasons.
Even though Mary received much discrimination racially, she also underwent gender discrimination from her husband. While at a church luncheon, her husband could not fathom the idea of Mary becoming an engineer. He said that “women were not meant to be engineers” and continuously tried to deter her from such aspirations. Although he becomes more supportive of her decisions in the end, his initial reaction to her goals of becoming an engineer lays the framework for any gender discrimination that Mary faces throughout the entirety of the film.
This idea of interconnected discrimination is also noted in the depiction of Katherine’s life. Katherine experiences heaps of racial discrimination, but one of the most impacting features of her racial discrimination is outlined during her bathroom breaks. Every time Katherine was in need to use the restroom, she had to trek half a mile across the NASA plant in order to find a ‘Colored Restroom.’ Melfi directs these scenes perfectly by adjusting the camera in ‘long shot form’ to show how far of a travel it was for Katherine to get to the restroom each day. Mr. Harrison, who is the head of the launch programs at NASA, eventually questions her for why she is always “disappearing.” At this moment, Katherine breaks down and explains her situation to all of those in the Engineering Laboratory. Her anecdote to Mr. Harrison was so compelling that he eventually broke down all of the ‘Colored Restroom’ signs, but it still does not erase the fact that such restrooms existed, which is an obvious display of racial segregation.
Even though Katherine endured many other instances of racism, she was also a victim of gender discrimination. The first instance of such discrimination came from her future husband, Colonel James A. Johnson. During their first encounter, Colonel Johnson is confused at why NASA gives “such hard jobs” to women. Obviously, this is a form of gender discrimination, as Colonel Johnson did not see it being a responsible business decision to allow women to endure such hard tasks in the workplace setting. A second instance of such discrimination comes when Katherine is originally denied permission to sit in on the Pentagon Meetings, which discussed the launch in which she was working on. Mr. Stafford, the lead engineer of the group in which Katherine worked, denied her attendance to the meetings. Reluctantly, Mr. Harrison stood up for her once again and allowed her to attend the meeting. Katherine even ends up making a groundbreaking calculation during the meeting, impressing all of those in attendance. It is obvious that her attendance should not have been questioned from the start, but her gender was the reason for her original denial.
To explore the idea of individual discrimination further, it is also important to delve into the life of Dorothy Vaughan. Specifically, we must focus on Dorothy’s encounter with Mrs. Mitchell when asking for a supervisorial position at NASA. Mrs. Mitchell informed Dorothy that she was unable to pursue such a position because NASA “does not hire coloreds.” This is obvious racial discrimination, and truly unfair to Dorothy as she is presumably a supervisor to the ‘Colored Computers.’ Dorothy simply wanted the position title to acclaim the pay she deserves, but her race kept her from such aspirations. Dorothy also faces another instance of racial discrimination, but this time in a public setting. While visiting a public library with her children, Dorothy was harassed by a librarian to leave because it was not a library for “colored folk.” Dorothy and her children were eventually escorted out of the library with the guidance of a security guard, but such discrimination is quite stapling, as it was in a public setting this time.
Even though Dorothy faces quite a bit of racial discrimination, she was also discriminated against because of gender. Such an instance is found during her trialing with the IBM computer, which was seemingly broken until she fixed it. As Dorothy was fixing the computer on her own accord, she was yelled at for being in the room containing the IBM computer. Eventually, we discovered that this was because of her gender. The only workers in the IBM task group were white males. As the workers learned that Dorothy was the reason for the computer’s functionality, she was eventually hired to the task team, but she was asked to leave her ‘Colored Computers’ group behind. Such a request was unfathomable to Dorothy, and she insisted that her group of girls would be alongside her on the IBM task group. Luckily, her requests were met with acceptance, and she persevered through such a strata of gender discrimination, which was hindering her entry into the IBM computer task group.
To understand how Hidden Figures, a film portraying the era of the Civil Rights Movement, is relatable to 21stcentury intersectionality, it is important to reveal the unfair treatment to women of color in the 21stcentury. The three women discussed all faced workplace discrimination due to their race and gender. These same occurrences can easily be found in 21stcentury America. The Lily, a verified analytical/news website, provides statistical analysis to show such workplace discrimination. They showed that women, on average, are paid 20% less than men of the same job title (The Lily News, 2017). To then emphasize the effects of intersectional discrimination, they also state that black women are paid 63% of what men of the same job title are paid (The Lily News, 2017). This statistic highlights the interconnected discrimination endured by African-American women in the 21stcentury.
By displaying the effects of workplace discrimination from the 1960s in a film made in 2017, Melfi is obviously proposing his own social commentary on the lasting effects of such intersectional discrimination. As previously discussed, workplace discrimination is a huge problem in 21stcentury America, which is why Hidden Figures is such a relevant film when discussing the effects of discrimination as interconnected between those of racial and gender minorities.
Melfi, Theodore, Donna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams, Allison Schroeder, Mandy Walker, Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch, Peter Teschner, Wynn P. Thomas, Renée E. Kalfus, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Glen Powell, Kimberly Quinn, Olek Krupa, and Margot L. Shetterly. Hidden Figures., 2017.
Nathan, Debbie. What Happened to Sandra Bland? The Nation, 26 Apr. 2016, www.thenation.com/article/what-happened-to-sandra-bland/.
“The Pay Gap Is Worse for Black Women. Here’s a Look at the Statistics.” The Lily News, 31 July 2017, www.thelily.com/the-pay-gap-is-worse-for-black-women-heres-a-look-at-the-statistics/.