The Research Triangle Park

US2020’s hidden connection with “Hidden Figures”

By Feb 14, 2017

It isn’t often that you get to say a movie is directly connected to your work.

But Hidden Figures, a biographical drama focusing on the achievements of three female African-American mathematicians working at NASA at the height of the Space Race, speaks directly to the work that US2020 RTP does. We’re an organization dedicated to getting underrepresented minority groups interested and involved with STEM, and having the chance to see a film that shows black women succeed and excel in their work at such a high-level entity was awe-inspiring.

However, their successes did not come without a lot of struggle. Katherine G. Johnson, the main character played by Taraji P. Henson, gets promoted to the Space Task Group, the NASA department in charge of producing the estimations needed to determine the space shuttle launch and reentry coordinates. However, there were no bathrooms that she could use in the building, as at the time bathrooms were still separated between white and colored facilities. She’s forced to run over a mile to a nearby building in order to use the restroom, and this leads to a pointed and sad moment where Katherine, sopping wet, has to stand up for her own right to work with dignity.

There are no real villains in Hidden Figures; rather, the story puts most of its focus on the many societal and unconscious burdens these women had to face day-in, day-out. Even as smart, educated, and economically successful women of color, they still struggled to make space for themselves in their careers, often having to fight against rules and systems that pushed back against them or expected them to know their place. It was a shift away from movies that focused on some of the more overt discrimination that took place during the 1960s, instead looking at some of the more inconspicuous struggles that both women and people of color faced. This was something that I really enjoyed, and is relevant for our world today as the face of America changes.

And what is a US2020 RTP blog without a mentioning of mentoring? Throughout the film, our three leading ladies were given support and pushed to excel by mentoring figures. Mary (Janelle Monáe) originally isn’t sure about her goal to pursue engineering, but is urged to stay the course by a fellow engineer named Karl and ends up succeeding by the film’s end. Katherine’s (whom we met above) work is met with praise from Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) as he relies on her and highlights her work more and more as the film progresses. All three women had the talent to succeed, but having a cheerleader on your team can build you up and take you to places you never thought possible. As US2020 RTP moves forward in supporting and developing the next generation of STEM talents, we’re excited to look for new ways in which we can be cheerleaders for the many students we come across and interact with.

by Chinedum Orji

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