Hidden Figures and the Messenger: Overcoming Underdog Status

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • The Underdogs in The Messenger and Hidden Figures
  • The Strong Female Role Models in Hidden Figures
  • The Hidden Figures' Portrayal of Segregation
  • Conclusion of Hidden Figures


What’s an underdog? Social status is often cited as the defining distinction. An underdog is a person who generally speaking is thought that he or she will lose. They are considered to be an underdog because they were viewing as the people who are expected to lose and not going to success in the society. In order for underdogs to success in the society, they just need an inspiration, and idea, and influence that would help them on a journey to change their life. This will show them the degree of success and change their underdog status and move towards developing their skills as a hero. The underdogs play significant role in The Messenger and Hidden Figures.

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The Underdogs in The Messenger and Hidden Figures

In storytelling, courage is a powerful element that can help underdogs to develop and grow towards success. Among many notable examples of this narrative tradition are The Messenger the novel (2002) written by Markus Zusak and Hidden Figures, the film (2016) directed by Theodore Melfi. Each of these tales foregrounds the hero’s journey of a person who was initially looked down upon and considered be an underdog to become an unlikely hero. As the journeys of the underage cabdriver Ed Kennedy in The Messenger and the African-Americans Mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, though, each finds it increasingly tough and sometimes extremely awkward to deal with daily life. This takes even more courage to shake off underdogs’ status.

In The Messenger, the initial status of Ed Kennedy was the same as underdog. He was an underage cabdriver and has very little confidence in his abilities, due to the fact that all his siblings have found good lives for themselves while he still lives in a shack driving a taxi for a living. When Ed and his buddies were threatened by a robber, he described himself:

“My full name’s Ed Kennedy. I’m nineteen. I’m an underage cabdriver. I’m typical of many of the young men you see in this suburban outpost of the city – not a whole lot of prospects or possibility. That aside, I read more books than I should, and I’m decidedly crap at sex and doing my taxes.”

As we can see from his description, Ed confessed much of this himself and even the underdog status. From this point, we also know that he is not very confident in himself. In the beginning of the novel, Ed and his buddies were encounter a robber in the bank. Afterwards, he ran after the robber and shot his friend’s car. The robber ended up arrested and Ed becomes the unlikely hero after that accident. As the following days, he started getting cards and address on it and that’s the journey of how Ed overcome his current status.

The Strong Female Role Models in Hidden Figures

It was in America in the middle of 20th century where Hidden Figures begins. The first African-American Mathematician, Katherine Johnson is introduced as an underrated protagonist who was being underestimated in the community. She was one of the women who worked as a computer at the Langley Research Centre, which means they do math by hand. One day, the head engineer needs a human computer who can do analytic geometry for their task group. As everyone in the Research Centre knows, Katherine was the all best around numbers. Her co-worker, Dorothy assigned her to the job. While Dorothy’s boss Mrs Mitchell was escorting Katherine to the new department, she admonished her:

“They’ve never had a coloured in here before, Katherine. Don’t embarrass me.” Such ironic words demonstrated that Mrs Mitchell does not think highly of Katherine in the new department. As well, she does not expect Katherine to competently handle the job. These was implied when Mrs Mitchell mentioned “Not many computers last more than a few days. He’s been through a dozen in as many months.” Katherine was being underestimated, treated by people in the department with disdain because she was a coloured woman, thus she’s been viewed as an underdog at this stage. Nevertheless, she maintained her spark-plug and bubbly determined personality regardless of the shocking treatment she received, fought against the racism surrounded more than once and refused to allow such prejudices to weaken her in the society. At the same time, we see Katherine as in Ed’s situation, they were being viewed as underdogs at the beginning of their journey. As for how they develop and change through their journey, it was a different story.

The Hidden Figures' Portrayal of Segregation

In Ed’s case, there are a number of unexpected moments coming up soon after he started to help people out on the cards listed. The days after the accident, Ed received an Ace of Diamonds with three addresses on it. He was unsure who gave it to him and what it means, so he went to visit these addresses. When it comes to the first address – Edgar Street, he saw a poor woman was being raped by her husband every night, she could not do anything with it and Ed could not either. As he mentioned when he saw this moment “my heart begins to suffocate me. It keeps rising until I can taste it.” We understand that he’s just too scared because of the violence on the Edgar Street. Yet Ed does not even do anything to help the woman once he leaves. At this stage, it’s the crucial ordeal of whether Ed is going to step out from his fear with courage. Subsequently, he is initially to assist those people address listed and realized that no one else would help them if he doesn’t. Even more tough challenge than Ed’s, Katherine was facing sexism and racism as a single mom in her journey. Even though her abilities at calculate mathematical equations is exceptional, but she is repeatedly underestimated in the community. It takes courage to keep doing her best at work and working with the prejudice around her.

Once he is initially to help those people, he has taken the first step out from the man who was lacking in confidence, motivation and did nothing for himself. As for Katherine’s situation, she began to stand out for herself, expressed her dissatisfaction and anger about the place where she worked at after the head engineer Mr. Harrison interrogated where she has been in the day. Katherine shouted with a clenched jaw and expressed her words explosively in front of the men:

“There is no bathroom. 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 my knees, my heels, and a simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay coloreds enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog, day and night, living off of 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.”

Such intense expressions throughout her words, revealing the displeasure of Katherine. She decided to speak up and refuse to use the colored bathroom to make her feel small. When it comes to the threshold-crossing stages, Ed’s transformation was even more shocking than Katherine’s.

As the Rose brothers – Gavin Rose and Daniel Rose, one of the address on the list. However, Ed is going to beat up one of them in order to deliver the message and help them to bond. After Gavin beaten up by Ed, Daniel found Ed again and repay the same favour as what Ed did to his brother Gavin. The morning after Ed was beaten up, he described “The icy water sets fire to my cuts and bruises, but everything feels good. It’s close to four in the morning now and I’m no longer afraid.”

Oppositely, Katherine becomes more courage than before and even have the spunk to challenge the sexism in her world. Most revealing, the conversation with Mr. Harrison which Katherine told him she wanted to be included in the highly classified meetings even she has no proper clearance:

Mr. Harrison: You’re not letting this go, are you?

Katherine: No, I’m not.

At this moment, courage has nudged her across the threshold of the person who she was at the beginning of her journey.

No longer paralyse by underdogs’ status, the man who was did nothing for his life now has becoming better and changing the path of his own life after each card and message. After accomplished the final message, Ed said:

“I’m not the message at all. I’m the message.”

Consciously, he realized that he is the true message all along the journey. He helped people and have an effect on their community. Regarding to Katherine’s, she has fought through the prejudice and her value has being recognized in the department. The astronaut John Glenn was requesting her to double-checking the calculation for landing with maths:

Mr. Harrison: You mean Katherine?

Glenn: Yes, sir. The smart one. I mean, she says they’re good. I’m ready to go.

In this moment, we noticed that Katherine was not being underestimated anymore and she has completely shaken off the underdog status.

Conclusion of Hidden Figures

As the ending of Ed and Katherine’s journeys, they have become a different person from before. Conquering the increasingly challenges with incredible courage, completed their hero’s journey and became a more confidence and valuable top dog. For Ed’s journey, after he has completed his final cards, he realized that he can be more than just underdog and life can be more than what it was before if he can take action in his own life. As for Katherine’s, by the reason of fighting against the prejudice surrounded, her value and talent has finally got recognized and appreciate in her society. 

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