(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