Fans of “classic” “Star Trek” probably haven’t forgotten it. But some have, and generations that got hooked on “The Next Generation” and “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine” etc. quite possibly never knew this.
But Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played the communications officer, a role basically reduced to interstellar receptionist, was the one member of that cast who truly changed history.
“Nichelle Nichols: Woman in Motion” is a warm, sentimental and delightful new documentary that aims to refresh our memories.
The “Woman in Motion” of the title is the give-away. It wasn’t just that this fledgling actress was one of the few African American women to be on a regular TV series in the ’60s, and thus a role model. She had a company, post-“Trek,” that was her instrument for altering the way we look at astronauts.
Todd Thompson’s documentary reminds us that NASA approached the once-and-forever “Lt. Uhura” of the Star Ship Enterprise after Nichols had noted “I don’t see my people here” after meeting real astronauts.
NASA hired Nichols, through her “Women in Motion” company, to encourage, cheerlead and in-person recruit women and people of color to apply to the agency, famed for its white guys in white suits, or at least white shirts and ties, since its birth.
And overnight — in mere months — the culture changed.
“Woman in Motion” is “Hidden Figures” in documentary form, covering just as much of Nichols’ personal life as she deems necessary (she is a producer on the film). So, no gossip, just a recounting of her upper middle class Chicago childhood of ballet lessons and a call to perform.
She sang in Duke Ellington’s band, transitioned to acclaim on Broadway and got her first “break” on TV in an episode about racial prejudice in a Gene Roddenberry TV series that preceded “Trek.”
Once she got on the show, she remembers the disappointment at the scope of the role. She’s often told the story of meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., who convinced her not to quit.
She was making an impact more than she ever realized.
Backed by a thrilling score by Colin O’Malley, Thompson & Co. use clips from the series (a biting and funny “Hailing frequencies open” mosaic and montage), snippets of her autobiography as a book-on-tape, archival interviews and a lengthy for-the-film conversation, graphics and testimonials to make their case.
Thompson’s film underlines and underscores Nichols’ undeniable contribution to broadening NASA’s horizons and drumming up interest in STEM education among minority students all over America with her work. Years of involvement — visits, public service announcements, talk show appearances on the agency’s behalf — cemented her legacy.
The “testimonials” delightfully back that up. Current and former astronauts, including former NASA chief Charles Bolden, sing her praises. Vivica A. Fox, who hits sci-fi conventions with the lady from time to time (“Independence Day” opened that door for Fox), recalled meeting her as being like meeting “a queen.”
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, “Hidden Figures” producer Pharell Williams, Rev. Al Sharpton, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former Senator Bill Nelson all marvel how just one actress, from an admittedly beloved and iconic TV series, could have inspired so many and triggered a change in one of America’s highest profile government agencies.
Roddenberry and others (screenwriters for the series) may have been drawn to her gorgeous looks, exotic eyes and dancer’s posture and poise (“and legs”). But they can’t have known how far Nichols would take that big break and how righteously she’d spend her pop cultural capital.
“Woman in Motion” tracks Nichols from that first year of involvement with NASA, through the Challenger disaster and beyond, and lets its star add one last teachable moment to her decades-long mission, one that helps the film transcend its natural “Star Trek” fan appeal.
What good is popularity if you don’t try to do some good with it?
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michael Dorn, Charles Bolden, Maxine Waters, Sen. Bill Nelson
Credits:Directed by Todd Thompson, script by Benjamin Crump, Joe Millin and John McCall. A Stars North release.