Stretching the definition of “film” just a bit for today’s Grrrl on Film Actress Spotlight as Nichelle Nichols (1932-) is most recognized for her television, and later film, role as Lt. Nyota Uhura. But Nichols is an actress and activist that deserves a spotlight.
Uhura – the name a play on Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom” – was a co-creation between Nichols and her former lover and life-long friend, Gene Roddenberry.
Roddenberry infused a progressive, humanist philosophy into Star Trek and the result was a series of “morality plays” cloaked in sci-fi adventure. The players represented a racially diverse and species-rich crew.
Uhura was a native of the United States of Africa, a linguistics scholar, a top student at Starfleet Academy, and Mr. Spock’s protégée – biographical details that were little known outside of fandom until J. J. Abrams’s recent franchise reboot (with Zoe Saldana as Uhura).
As Nichols wrote in her autobiography:
“Uhura was far more than an intergalactic telephone operator. As head of Communications, she commanded a corps of largely unseen communications technicians, linguists, and other specialists who worked in the bowels of the Enterprise, in the ‘comm-center.’”
But the scripts that Nichols was initially handed were each quickly revised to focus on a core group of three characters: James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelly). (Other characters were marginalized as well.)
Nichols was growing weary of the racist and sexist treatment she encountered from network executives and when she found out that her fan mail was being withheld she decided to resign at the end of the first season.
As we know, she continued with the series, and the reason she did is a rather famous story. The night after she resigned, Nichols attended a fund-raising event for the NAACP and met a fan of hers, and of Star Trek, who encouraged her to keep the role. She quotes this man’s convincing appeal in her autobiography:
“Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? Don’t you realize this gift this man [Roddenberry] has given the world? Men and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals. You listen to me: Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the ﬁrst nonstereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground… . Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little Black children. You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people—as we should be. There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone. Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color.”
And so it’s because of a serendipitous encounter with one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that Nichelle Nichols continued her role as Uhura. In doing so, she inspired a generation of people towards their dreams including, Academy Award winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, who had a recurring role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who was the first African American woman in space.
Additionally, as Yvonne D. Sims notes in her book, Women of Blaxploitation: How the Black Action Film Heroine Changed American Popular Culture, Nichols was one of several actresses that showed audiences for the first time that “the range of diverse beauty among African American women was not defined by mammy, the exotic other, Aunt Jemima, or Sapphire roles.” (In fact, a famous story about Whoopi Goldberg is that she saw Nichols in her role as Uhura and screamed for her mother to come see that there was “a Black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” – and then and there she knew she could be anything she wanted. )
In order to broaden her image after the cancellation of Star Trek, and to stretch her acting abilities, Nichols took on the role of Dorinda in 1974’s blaxploitation film Truck Turner. She’d been offered the role of the girlfriend, but when she read the script she knew she had to play Dorinda – the saucy, trash-talking, tough-as-nails, madam. Issac Hayes, who both starred in and produced the film, was concerned that the part of Dorinda was not a starring one. Nichols told him to make it one.
Dorinda, was something fierce, with a mouth that must inspire nearly every line of Quentin Tarantino dialogue, as evidenced by this clip.
In the later part of the 1970s, Nichols established Women in Motion, Inc. – a consultant firm through which she took on a number of government contracts. She was then appointed to the board of directors of the national space institute and became a deputy administrator of NASA. She began a recruitment campaign for NASA but told them straight up that if she found qualified applicants and she continued to see “a lily-white, all-male astronaut corps” she would file a class-action suit against them.
Fortunately, it didn’t have to come to that. Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978 and became the first American woman in space in 1983. Guion Bluford became an astronaut in 1979 and the first African American man in space in 1983. (Uhura was promoted to Commander in 1979.)
Nichelle Nichols has most recently been seen in Are We There Yet? with Ice Cube, and though underused in her guest appearances on Heroes, made the most of her screen time with her graceful, even regal, presence.
For your viewing pleasure, some classic Nichelle Nichols footage:
And finally, in honor of Kelsey Wallace’s recent post on Twilight parodies and mash-ups here is the brilliant Trek Turner – a mash-up of Truck Turner and the Star Trek animated series.