Nichelle Nichols is well known to Star Trek fans as the actress who played Uhura in three seasons of The Original Series and six Trek feature films, but the new documentary Woman in Motion tells an inspiring story of the actress’ successful efforts to change NASA and bring Trek’s future infinite diversity into the space program of her day. Fathom Events is running screenings of the documentary on three days this week, and it’s worth checking out, even if you think you already know Nichols’ story.
Structured in a standard documentary format with a linear story told through a combination of new and archival interviews along with historic photos and film, Woman in Motion is surprisingly compelling. Beginning with Nichols’ early life, you get drawn into a world of a young black woman fighting the Jim Crow-era mindset but inspired by the confidence to reach for the stars given to her by a supportive father. Even though Nichelle’s life on the road, getting her big break as a singer with Duke Ellington, and her fateful meeting with Gene Roddenberry on the set of The Lieutenant in 1964 could be a biopic in itself, the doc remains focused, using this early era to establish the ingrained tenacity that will carry her through to the main subject of the film, her work with NASA.
A solid chunk of the doc covers Nichols’ time on Star Trek. Roddenberry’s vision of a diverse future that included an African on the bridge of the USS Enterprise is reflected in Nichols’ perspective. She says, “I became essentially who I became through Gene Roddenberry. He discovered me. It was meant to be.” But the film does not ignore where the show fell short: Insights from co-star George Takei and late Star Trek writer DC Fontana along with David Gerrold reveal how in-depth storylines written for Uhura would get watered down and eventually eliminated through the revision process.
This leads to the famous moment when Nichols decided to leave the show, only to be convinced to stay by Martin Luther King, Jr., who felt that her being seen as part of the future was too important to lose during the Civil Rights era. While you may think you know this story, Woman in Motion finds new ways to retell it, which includes hearing from Martin Luther King III about how his father would find the time to watch Star Trek with his family. And MLK’s insight is proven true through testimonials given by many who talk about being inspired by Star Trek, including future astronauts like Frederick Gregory, congresswoman Maxine Waters, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Star Trek: The Next Generation star Michael Dorn.
The main subject of the doc really kicks in as the story moves into the 1970s when Nichols began to speak out about the lack of diversity in NASA, with an astronaut corps still comprised entirely of white men. We hear from NASA insiders about their struggles to convince women and people of color to apply, leading them to reach out to Nichols to help.
The number of different perspectives from inside and outside the agency is impressive, helped along by Nichelle telling her story as well. Woman in Motion director Todd Thompson cleverly uses the interviews he did with Nichols combined with ones she did in the ’70s and ’80s, seamlessly weaving them together into a single narrative. A great storyteller, Nichols draws you in with genuine humor and emotion. Contemporary footage from Nichelle’s 1977 PR blitz on behalf of NASA is a delight to watch, featuring her at public events and doing the talk show circuit, culminating in a tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center for Good Morning America. Spoiler alert: It worked.
Much of the doc tells the story of the Shuttle program through the ’80s and beyond, and the many astronauts and scientists brought in by the work of Nichelle and her company Woman in Motion, Inc. We see and hear from those who signed on due to her efforts and follow the progress of the program. This goes from the highs of the program kickoffs to the lows, like the 1986 Challenger disaster and the heartbreak of Nichelle seeing some of those she had help recruit lose their lives, including Judith Resnick, who had become a close personal friend.
At its heart, and without being sycophantic, Woman in Motion is a simple and inspiring story about trying to make Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a diverse future into a reality. And it’s not just about Nichols, but a celebration of everyone involved at NASA and beyond to make it possible. But even she will acknowledge the work is ongoing, summarizing where we are on that journey with “We have only begun to begin.”
Women in Motion is highly recommended to anyone interested in Star Trek history or the history of the late 20th century, especially the space program. Told from a wide array of perspectives, the documentary drives home its story with an impressive collection of imagery and film, including some from behind the scenes of Star Trek.
Woman in Motion extended to 3 nights this week
Fathom Events originally planned for Woman in Motion to screen for a single night, on Tuesday, February 2, but they have now added Thursday, February 4, and Saturday, February 6. For participating locations and tickets visit www.FathomEvents.com.
Following the feature presentation, fans will be treated to an exclusive behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Woman in Motion, which includes additional interviews with Nichols and other notable guests from the documentary, deleted scenes, and additional footage from the making of the film.
Woman in Motion is expected to be released for video on demand later this year.
Clips and trailer
See more news and analysis about Star Trek documentaries at TrekMovie.com.