Woman in Motion


Uhura is still alluring.

(2019) Documentary (Shout! Nichelle Nichols, Vivica A. Fox, George Takei, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Reginald Hudlin, Lynn Whitfield, Al Sharpton, Pharrell Williams, John Lewis, Maxine Waters, Martin Luther King III, Rod Roddenberry, Michael Dorn, Benjamin Crump, Michael Eric Dyson, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, Deborah Riley Draper, Walter Koenig, Allison Schroeder. Directed by Todd Thompson


Whether you are a fan of the show Star Trek or not, you have to admit that it was historic and changed our culture for good. During its short three season run, it pushed the boundaries of what television sci-fi could be – from essentially kids programming to, for the first time, intelligent adult shows concerning issues that humanity was facing at the moment it aired (many of which we’re still facing) from racism to mutually assured destruction to drug addiction.

Nichelle Nichols was part of that groundbreaking cast. She was one of the first African-Americans to appear in a role that wasn’t subservient or strictly comic relief (although she did provide that from time to time). She took part in television’s first interracial kiss (with William Shatner) which led to many stations in the South to refuse to air the episode; that’s history making. But many of Trek’s even most staunchest fans may not know that her real history making came after the show left the airwaves.

The astronaut program for NASA had been up to that point strictly white men only. While there had been a brief flirtation with admitting women to the program, that effort was eventually discontinued quietly and NASA remained a white boys-only club – and Nichelle Nichols noticed. She told NASA’s chief “I don’t see my people (among the astronauts)” during a convention and as it turned out, NASA listened. They had already been eager to change the demographic of the astronaut program; the problem was, they weren’t getting much interest from the African-American community nor any other minorities for that matter. Nichelle, through her Women in Motion program, was tasked with recruiting astronauts to the program. And in order to talk knowledgeably about the process, Nichols herself underwent some of the tests that applicants go through.

Eventually, she succeeded in bringing enough people of color and women to the program to at least get the integration process started. This documentary on her life focuses primarily on her post-Trek endeavors, although her early history growing up in Chicago, her aspirations to be a dancer and a singer, and her gradual migration to acting are chronicled, as is her career as Lt. Uhura (there’s an amusing montage of Nichols saying her signature line “Hailing frequencies open,”).

But it is also true that the extraordinarily talented Nichols – who has an amazing vocal range, which she demonstrates in several songs sung during the course of the documentary – was criminally underutilized, often relegated to being little more than a switchboard operator. Stung by the lack of development for her role, Nichols was ready to quit – until no less a personage than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened, urging her to keep at it. The astute Dr. King realized the symbolic importance of Nichols’ mere presence on Star Trek.

The movie, which was the opening night film at last year’s Florida Film Festival, does bog itself down with an overabundance of talking head interviews from all walks of life, including her fellow Trek co-stars George Takei and Walter Koenig, one of the successors to the franchise (Michael Dorn), actors (Vivica A. Fox and Reginald Hudlin), scientists (Neil DeGrasse Tyson), astronauts (Mae Jemison and Bill Nelson) and politicians (Maxine Waters, John Lewis) discuss Nichols and her importance as both an actress and a recruiter for NASA.

Nichols proved to be an engaging storyteller, although after filming she was afflicted with dementia which is not evident in the film. It did prevent her from doing much publicity for the film, which is a shame because there is a wonderful warmth here, even despite the seemingly endless parade of interviews. We do see a lot of archival footage of Nichols stumping for NASA as well as a plethora of Trek clips, but this isn’t a movie necessarily for hardcore Trekkers – although they will certainly want to see it.

REASONS TO SEE: Nichols is a wonderful storyteller. She has amazing range as a singer. One truly gets a sense of her inner strength and determination.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly reliant on talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a child, Nichols took ballet dancers and dreamed of one day becoming one of the first African-American ballerinas; she ended up becoming a singer (and at one time sang for Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and then an actress.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Mimic

For the Love of Spock


The Nimoys are all ears.

The Nimoys are all ears.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas) Leonard Nimoy, Adam Nimoy, Mel Nimoy, Sybil Nimoy, Julie Nimoy, William Shatner, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, J.J. Abrams, Jason Alexander, Walter Koenig, Catherine Hicks, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Nicholas Meyer, D.C. Fontana, Amy Mainzer. Directed by Adam Nimoy

 

The character of Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series was and is a cultural icon. Played by Leonard Nimoy, then a character actor who had never worked more than two weeks on the same project in his career, he was created at a time of great social upheaval and in many ways stood for rationality, logic and self-control in a time when just about everyone was about as emotional as one could get. He also stood for cultural tolerance, as he was best friends with a human which was a metaphor for the racial turmoil going on in the United States at the time (and sadly continues to this day).

Nimoy’s son Adam, a successful television director, wanted to do a documentary on the cultural phenomenon that is Spock and got his father’s blessing to do it. After a Kickstarter campaign netted the necessary funds, Adam conducted an interview with his father and started to talk to other members of the original series cast when his father suddenly passed away at age 83.

The focus of the film changed from Spock to Leonard Nimoy. It became a love letter from a son to his father. The two had a very rocky relationship at times, particularly when Adam’s drug use became an issue, which fueled displeasure from his father, an alcoholic. They went years without speaking, but eventually reconciled.

He tells his father’s story, glossing over his childhood and young adulthood and bringing him to his days in Trek. Much of  the movie focuses on his time as Spock and in between; on the rigors of fame and having to share his father with an adoring fan base. Early on, he and his sister Julie answered fan mail for their father. It was Adam who in the famous prank showed up on the set without his dad’s knowledge wearing Vulcan make-up (the footage is shown here).

Nimoy famously has had a loving relationship with the Trek community of both fans and the cast and crews of the various TV and film iterations; he also had a sometimes contentious relationship with Paramount, the studio that produced the series; his lawsuit to gain the cast royalties from merchandising was settled largely because the studio wanted to make motion pictures based on the show and Nimoy refused to sign for the film before the suit was settled. It was also at his insistence that George Takei and Nichelle Nichols were added to the animated series cast; he felt strongly that the diversity of the original show’s cast needed to be brought over to the animated show and even today both of those actors refer to the incident with great affection.

The younger Nimoy includes plenty of home movies as well as backstage footage from the show and films which for me personally was very nostalgic; I lived in Los Angeles at the time the show and the first movies were being filmed and I was reminded of that watching the film, bringing on in me a strong sense of comfort. It was an idyllic time and an idyllic place.

The movie does run a bit long in my opinion but love letters always tend to. Fans of the TV show and of Star Trek in general won’t mind; I think they’ll kind of prefer it that way. The interviews with the new cast add a bit of dimension in that all of them grew up with Star Trek even if they weren’t fans and those that were (such as Simon Pegg) were a bit awestruck working with Nimoy in his signature role. Fans like Jason Alexander and Jim Parsons talk about what the character meant to them but at the end of the day, it is his brother Mel who breaks down when talking about the terrible day when Leonard Nimoy passed away that gives us the greatest sense of what the man behind the Vulcan meant to us all.

The film closes with a tribute to Nimoy at the Burning Man festival shortly after he passed away and I swear that the flames on the tribute as, like the other temporary art installations at the festival, burned to the ground brought to mind the Federation emblem in the shape of the flames seemed to be the most cosmic of all the tributes. Spock lives but without Nimoy to give the character its essence (with all due respect to Zachary Quinto who plays Spock in the movie reboot franchise) it is mostly the idea of Spock that we have now – and that gives all of us comfort. Truly, this is a wonderful way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original show.

REASONS TO GO: Very much a love letter from a son to his father. It’s an interesting perspective on fame by the children of the famous. The backstage footage is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Be Takei
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Milton’s Secret