Actress Nichelle Nichols will forever be remembered for playing Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series—one of the first Black women to play a prominent role on television—as well as engaging in the first interracial kiss on scripted television in the US. Less known is her equally seminal role as an ambassador for NASA in the 1970s, working tirelessly to bring more diversity to the agency’s recruitment efforts. That work is highlighted in Woman in Motion, a new documentary directed by Todd Thompson that is now streaming on Paramount+.
Thompson himself was not a hardcore Star Trek fan growing up, although he had seen most of the movies and was certainly familiar with Nichols’ portrayal of Uhura. His producing partners were fans, however, and when they told him about Nichol’s contributions to NASA, he decided it was a story that had to be told. Over the course of production, he interviewed dozens of people about how Nichols inspired them, and also spent a considerable amount of time with the actress herself, now 88.
“She’s the definition of Hollywood royalty for me,” Thompson told Ars. “How she carries herself, how she treats others, how she engages with you—she’s so incredibly magnetic. What she did was so paramount to giving us a blueprint of where we need to go, how we need to be, if we’re going to make any sort of progress here on Earth and beyond the stars. I was very humbled by the responsibility to tell her story and tell it the right way.”
Woman in Motion starts out as a fairly standard biopic, exploring Nichols’ early days as a dancer and singer. She had wanted to become the first Black ballerina, and by age 14 landed her first gig at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. She subsequently toured the US, Canada, and Europe with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton, before settling in Los Angeles in 1960 to pursue acting. “Her journey wasn’t a straight line,” said Thompson, “It was very zig-saggy, and yet it had a definite direction, unbeknownst to her at the time. All the stars lined up in a very nice way.”
Among Nichols’ first roles was playing a Black soldier’s fiancee on a short-lived series called The Lieutenant, produced by Genre Roddenberry. The episode (which never aired) was entitled “To Set It Right,” and dealt explicitly with radial prejudice. So when Roddenberry began developing a new series, originally titled Wagon Train to the Stars, he thought of her for one of the roles. That show became Star Trek, and Nichols made history as Uhura. (In her autobiography, Nichols revealed that she had been romantically involved with Roddenberry before he met his wife, Majel Hudec, although the affair ended well before she was cast in Star Trek.)
Nichols very nearly quit the series after the first season, frustrated with what she perceived to be a constantly diminished role. But a chance encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her mind. “You cannot, you cannot,” she recalled him saying when she told him she wanted to leave the series. “For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful people, who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers. If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a Black role, and it is not a female role, he can fill it with anybody, even an alien.”
After the original series ended, Nichols attended a 1975 Star Trek convention, where NASA’s director of science was also speaking. He expressed his admiration for Uhura. She in turn spoke about her love of space and NASA, but also of her sense of disenfranchisement: “I didn’t see me” in the modern space program, she recalls in the film. When NASA claimed they couldn’t find qualified Black people, Nichols didn’t buy it, insisting that Black people and women weren’t applying to the program because they didn’t believe NASA was serious about giving them a chance. So she became a NASA spokesperson through her company, Women in Motion.
Nichols spent a whirlwind four months traveling all over the country, trying to recruit women and minorities to the shuttle program. When she started, 100 of NASA’s aspiring recruits were women, and just 35 were minorities. By the time she submitted her final report, those numbers had swelled to 1649 women and 1000 minorities in a group of 8000. “That’s so Nichelle,” said Thompson. “Whatever she puts her mind to, she’s going to go after it.”
Among those recruits were Sally Ride and Judith Resnick—the first and second American women in space, respectively—as well as Guy Bluford Jr., and Ron McNair, the first and second Black astronauts in space, and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American in space. Col. Frederick D. Gregory also heeded the call, and wound up serving on three shuttle missions, before becoming NASA Deputy Administrator.
Nichols’ story is not without its share of tragedy. McNair, Resnick, and Onizuka were all crew members on the Space Shuttle Challenger for the doomed mission STS-51-L. The shuttle broke up in the air just 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986, killing everyone on board. Nichols was devastated by the loss, particularly of Resnick, with whom she had become quite close. In fact, she can’t bring herself to talk about it on camera in the documentary, all these years later, briefly breaking down and stopping the interview for a time to regain her composure.
“I think she has a sense of responsibility for that, because she was the one on the road recruiting them and encouraging them to get involved,” said Thompson. That loss is offset somewhat by an interview with Resnick’s brother, who spoke of how proud he was of Nichols and how she opened the door for his sister to fulfill her dream of being an astronaut, with no regrets. For Thompson, the Challenger disaster serves as a reminder that space exploration carries considerable risks, and that those who take on such missions believe the rewards to be gained far outweigh those risks.
Nichols suffered a mild stroke in 2015, and was diagnosed with dementia in 2018. She no longer makes public appearances, so it’s wonderful to see her smiling and laughing, engaging the camera with her usual zest and warm humor in Woman in Motion. “We haven’t even begun to begin” to realize the future of diversity that Star Trek put forth, she says at the end.
Thompson hopes the documentary will inspire others to follow in her trailblazing footsteps. “I really want people to walk away from this film feeling energized, feeling hopeful, and most importantly, realizing that anyone can make a difference,” he said. “We don’t have to be TV actresses, astronauts, or scientists. We can just be who we are with a huge conviction to help make the world a better place.”
Woman in Motion is now streaming on Paramount+.
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