Analyzing the Untold Significance of 'Hidden Figures' in Film


Released in 2016, "Hidden Figures" is a cinematic masterpiece that sheds light on an often-overlooked chapter of American history. Directed by Theodore Melfi, the film brings to life the incredible true story of three African American women mathematicians who played pivotal roles at NASA during the Space Race of the 1960s. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, respectively, faced not only the challenges of complex calculations but also the daunting obstacles of racial and gender discrimination.

This essay delves into an analysis of "Hidden Figures," exploring its historical context, character development, social and cultural commentary, cinematic techniques, and underlying themes. Through this analysis, we aim to reveal the film's profound significance in illuminating a part of history that was long shrouded in obscurity.

Historical Context

To truly appreciate the impact and relevance of "Hidden Figures," it is imperative to understand the historical backdrop against which the film is set.

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The 1960s marked a tumultuous period in American history, characterized by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race. As the United States competed with the Soviet Union in the race to space exploration, NASA played a central role in this endeavor. However, against the backdrop of scientific advancement, pervasive racial segregation and gender bias prevailed.

African American women, in particular, faced formidable challenges in pursuing careers in mathematics and engineering. Segregation was not only rampant in society but also within NASA itself. In the midst of this adversity, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson emerged as extraordinary talents who defied the odds and shattered glass ceilings.

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In "Hidden Figures," the filmmakers skillfully capture the tension between the nation's desire for scientific progress and the deeply entrenched prejudices of the era. The film serves as a poignant reminder of the profound injustices faced by African Americans and women during this pivotal period in American history.

Character Analysis

"Hidden Figures" introduces us to three remarkable women who not only challenged societal norms but also made indelible contributions to the field of mathematics and space exploration. Katherine Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, stands as the film's central figure. As a brilliant mathematician, she played a crucial role in calculating trajectories for NASA's early space missions, including John Glenn's historic orbit around the Earth. Her determination and intellect broke barriers for women of color in STEM fields.

Dorothy Vaughan, portrayed by Octavia Spencer, is depicted as a pioneering computer programmer who recognized the importance of adapting to the digital age. Her leadership and determination led to her becoming NASA's first African American supervisor, an achievement that paved the way for others.

Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, is portrayed as a tenacious engineer who fought against the limitations imposed on her due to her race and gender. Her story highlights the struggles of black women aspiring to enter traditionally male-dominated fields.

The characters in "Hidden Figures" are portrayed with depth and authenticity, allowing the audience to connect with their personal journeys. Through their stories, the film brings to life the resilience and intelligence of these extraordinary women.

Social and Cultural Commentary

"Hidden Figures" is not merely a biographical account but a powerful commentary on the social and cultural dynamics of the 1960s. The film unflinchingly portrays the harsh realities of segregation, racial prejudice, and gender discrimination that permeated American society at the time. We witness the characters enduring segregated bathrooms, separate coffee pots, and systemic obstacles.

However, the film also showcases the strength, dignity, and determination of its protagonists as they navigate these challenges. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary confront discrimination head-on, often with remarkable grace. Their stories reflect not only the personal triumphs of these women but also the collective resilience of the African American community during the Civil Rights era.

"Hidden Figures" serves as a poignant reminder that the pursuit of scientific progress occurred alongside the fight for civil rights. The film's portrayal of the women's struggles and triumphs underscores the notion that equality should be extended to all, regardless of race or gender.

In the subsequent sections of this essay, we will explore the cinematic techniques employed in "Hidden Figures" and delve into the overarching themes that make this film a timeless and significant piece of cinema.

Cinematic Techniques and Themes

"Hidden Figures" not only tells an important historical story but does so with exceptional cinematic craftsmanship. Director Theodore Melfi and his team employ various techniques to bring the narrative to life. Cinematography, in particular, plays a significant role in capturing the essence of the era and the characters' journeys.

The film uses a color palette that shifts to reflect the changing times and moods. The warm, vibrant colors of the early 1960s give way to cooler, more subdued tones as the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum. This visual transition mirrors the societal changes occurring simultaneously.

The soundtrack, featuring music by Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer, complements the film's emotional arc. The music enhances the sense of triumph, resilience, and hope that defines the characters' experiences. It connects the audience with the characters' emotions and the broader historical context.

"Hidden Figures" also skillfully employs juxtaposition and symbolism. For instance, scenes where Katherine solves complex equations are intercut with moments of racial tension or discrimination, emphasizing the stark contrast between scientific progress and societal inequality.

Furthermore, the film explores themes that resonate beyond the historical context. The overarching themes of empowerment, perseverance, and the pursuit of equality remain relevant today. Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary's stories inspire audiences to break through barriers and challenge stereotypes, regardless of their backgrounds or circumstances.


In conclusion, "Hidden Figures" is more than a film; it is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of individuals to effect change. By analyzing its historical context, character development, social commentary, cinematic techniques, and underlying themes, we gain a comprehensive understanding of its significance.

The film not only educates us about a forgotten chapter in history but also serves as a mirror to contemporary society, urging us to confront our own biases and work towards a more inclusive and equitable future. "Hidden Figures" stands as a beacon of hope and inspiration, reminding us that even in the face of adversity, determination and intelligence can break down the barriers of prejudice and discrimination.

As we continue to reflect on the achievements of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and countless others who have faced similar challenges, "Hidden Figures" encourages us to strive for a world where every individual's potential is recognized and celebrated, regardless of their background.


"Hidden Figures" IMDb Page
"Hidden Figures" Wikipedia Page - Civil Rights Movement
NASA Official Website
Encyclopedia Britannica - Space Race

Updated: Dec 18, 2023
Cite this page

Analyzing the Untold Significance of 'Hidden Figures' in Film. (2023, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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