Women's Lives on Screen

‘For better or for worse, there is history, there is the book and then there's the movie’: Foregrounding and Marginalizing African American Women in the Film Hidden Figures (2016)





affect, film, gender, race


This paper critically examines the representation of gender and race in the biographical drama film Hidden Figures (2016), directed by Theodore Melfi. The film is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same title, which spotlights previously hidden figures in US history: the black female mathematicians who worked in the early US space program. The movie was released to critical acclaim and embraced by audiences as empowering African American girls. At the same time, the film was criticized for including a ‘white savior’ scene in which the black female protagonists are marginalized.

After providing background information on Shetterly’s book and the film’s critical reception, this paper conducts a close formal analysis of a pivotal sequence in the film, which is compared to the events told in the nonfiction book. To shed light on the power structures that the film sequence projects, the results of this analysis are, subsequently, related to critical theoretical approaches to Hollywood cinema, as well as to Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘affective economies.’ In conclusion, we argue that Hollywood filmmakers’ expectations about the desires of ‘mainstream’ audiences work to perpetuate the repression of previously repressed herstory on the ‘silver screen.’

Author Biographies

Timo Frühwirth, University of Vienna

Timo Frühwirth is a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna and Graduate Fellow at the Vienna Doctoral Academy: Theory and Methodology in the Humanities. He has taught courses in film studies, popular culture studies, and multimodality studies.

Philipp Bechtold, University of Vienna

Philipp Bechtold is an MEd student in English and physics at the University of Vienna. In his BA thesis, he conducted a systemic functional analysis of contemporary short stories with a focus on reader engagement.

Elisabeth Güner, University of Vienna

Elisabeth Güner is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in digital marketing at the St. Pölten University of Applied Sciences. She studied English and American Studies at the University of Vienna and completed a BA degree at the University of Greenwich.

Marie-Theres Krutner, University of Vienna

Marie-Theres Krutner studies English and American Studies at the University of Vienna as well as art history and art therapy. Currently, she is working on a BA thesis on Victorian pornographic poetry.





Women's Lives on Screen