‘Woman in Motion’ Review: Nichelle Nichols Beyond Star Trek

Every Trekkie is raised with a certain reverence for actress Nichelle Nichols and her character on the original Star Trek, Lt. Uhura. The show’s diverse cast is one of the most prominent feathers in its cap, after all, and no document of the series’ run is complete without mentioning Uhura’s kiss with Kirk in “Plato’s Stepchildren” in 1968, one of the first interracial kisses in television history. But, often, celebrating Nichols has been a de facto celebration of Star Trek more than the woman herself. In his documentary Woman in Motion, which arrives on Paramount+ on June 3rd, director Todd Thompson shifts the focus off of what Nichols accomplished as a part of Star Trek and onto her own achievements as a driving force in diversifying America’s space program in the 1970s.

Finding Her Frequency

Much of the story of Woman in Motion is told using Nichelle Nichols’ own words, cutting casually between interviews recorded over the past fifty years. New footage of Nichols in the present day is mixed in with a talk show appearance from 1977, raw interview footage for a nonfiction book in 1989, the audiobook of her 1994 autobiography, a longform interview with the Archive of American Television in 2010, and scattered other clips in between. When the film introduces this device, the ‘89 Nichols warns the audience that “this [will get] schizophrenic,” but that’s not really the case, as her recollections have a consistent point of view despite our bouncing through time. No matter the time period, Woman in Motion presents Nichelle Nichols as a being of pure, uncut confidence.

This confidence (coupled with the lucky breaks any performer needs to succeed) propelled her into ballet, a singing career on tour with Duke Ellington, and prospects in musical theater before she ever appeared on television. Woman in Motion finds a few occasions to highlight Nichols’ vocal range — in a clip from her 2010 interview, the then-78-year-old effortlessly jumps between octaves, and the closing credits play over a solid crooning rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” for a 2016 single. (Note: Her 1967 album Down to Earth is a worthwhile listen if you like jazz standards, but steer clear of her bizarre 1991 fusion album Out of this World.)

While additional talking heads are peppered within Nichols’ story from the beginning, Woman in Motion is mostly rooted in her personal experience for its opening chapter. It’s not until the subject of the documentary turns to Star Trek that the point of view shifts for any significant period, as testimonials from astronauts, pundits, and series cast and crew shower Star Trek with the expected praise for its social commentary, and for Nichols’ Lt. Uhura in particular. This outside perspective on the impact of Star Trek is a valuable contrast to Nichols’ own experience, which is that of a frustrated actor who was given less to do on the show with every passing script revision. To her, it was just a job, a brief detour from her stage career, until a personal appeal from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded her to remain on the show. While Uhura wasn’t a terribly demanding or fulfilling role, King believed there was great value simply in her being there, a Black woman holding a position of authority on a television show when such a thing was unheard of. This is a narrative with which Women in Motion firmly agrees.

Woman in Motion

Recruiting the Real “Next Generation”

In Woman in Motion, the story of Nichelle Nichols’ career as an entertainer only takes up the first thirty minutes, mere background for the real story: her campaign to diversify the pool of NASA’s astronaut candidates. After viewing a NASA presentation at a Star Trek convention in 1975, Nichols began writing editorials about the homogeneity of America’s astronauts — who up until this point had been exclusively white men. NASA, as it turned out, was actively interested in solving this inequity, but their own recruitment efforts for the forthcoming class of space shuttle astronauts had yielded practically no applications from women or people of color. Nichols was invited to NASA’s headquarters, where she laid out the issue plainly — the problem was not a lack of potential candidates, but a disbelief among qualified women and people of color that NASA would accept them if they applied. Women in Motion underlines this point hard, cutting to contemporary testimonials from Black and female astronauts and aviators telling personal stories of their rejection from white male institutions.

Nichols suggested sending a credible representative out to make a direct appeal to the demographics they were missing. NASA agreed, and felt they’d already found the right voice for such a program — Nichols herself. But Nichols was not content to be a mouthpiece for NASA, and agreed to assist their recruitment efforts under a carefully selected set of terms designed to force them into honoring their word. Nichols would operate as a contractor, utilizing her own organization Women in Motion rather than functioning as some sort of mascot. Not only would this avoid the appearance of being a simple recruiting gimmick, but it would help Nichols gain leverage over NASA — should she provide a wealth of minority candidates and the next astronaut class still turned out to be all white men, she’d have a class action suit waiting.

This is the turn that raises the story of Women in Motion to a level above Nichols’ impact as a performer on Star Trek. Nichols gave life to Uhura, but like any television character she is an instrument of other creators, writers, and producers. In her 1977 astronaut recruitment efforts, Nichols used the notoriety she gained from telling other peoples’ stories to become her own instrument serving a goal of her choosing.

Women in Motion dedicates the better part of a half hour to Nichelle Nichols’ four months of work reshaping the astronaut recruitment program, told not only through her words but those of NASA officials, space flight historians, and some of the individuals she recruited. Col. Frederick D. Gregory, former astronaut and deputy administrator of NASA, recalls seeing Nichols on a TV ad inviting him to apply. “I knew she was talking to me,” he says, and he wasn’t alone in that sentiment — Nichols’ efforts quintupled the total number of applicants, and the number of minority applicants by a factor of thirteen. The resulting 1978 Class, previously expected to consist of 25 white men, expanded to 35 and included America’s first six female astronauts, first three African American astronauts, and first Asian American and Jewish American astronauts. Nichols, in the present day, speaks of her role in this change with immense pride, and the film unambiguously frames her involvement as its single pivot point.

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Woman in Motion

An Extra Orbit

The results of Nichelle Nichols’ NASA recruitment drive are shared, via title cards, 56 minutes into the runtime of Woman in Motion, right when it feels as if the story is wrapping up. We see Nichols choking back joyful tears as she reflects on her impact on the space program, Colin O’Malley’s score swells, and a montage of the recruits she inspired appears on screen. The emotional arc of the film has ended. Surprisingly, however, the film then continues for another twenty minutes to follow the Class of 1978 through the following decade of the Space Shuttle program, amounting to an overlong epilogue to the story we’ve been watching.

There’s something refreshing about a documentary that’s interested in the time period when humanity went to space for primarily scientific purposes, rather than to fight for the nuclear high ground (as in the 50s and 60s) or to attain corporate colonial dominance (which is where it looks like we’re headed). The problem with this portion of Woman in Motion is that it feels like it has autoplayed onto the next episode in a series about NASA that happened to focus an episode on Nichelle Nichols, and that this next episode doesn’t have much of a focus at all. Despite an attempt to build a short story arc of its own around the Challenger disaster, the subsequent suspension of the Space Shuttle program, and its triumphant return to flight, this section of the film is hurt by the near-absence of its central character.

But, naturally, Woman in Motion wraps up by circling back to Nichelle Nichols, following her ongoing relationship with NASA and STEM education into the present day and reflecting on the reverberations of her work. With the emotional core of the documentary restored, Woman in Motion’s assertions of the wonder and importance of human space flight become much more powerful. Listening to Nichelle Nichols wax poetic about the value of the space program is actually more compelling than actual footage from the space program, and that charisma is exactly what this film exists to celebrate.

Woman in Motion is a documentary that is truly in love with its subject, the kind of tribute few human beings get to receive before they die. It may educate you on a rarely-explored chapter in America’s space history, but it’s main occupation is to make you fall in love with Nichelle Nichols, too. In this effort, I found Woman in Motion to be a complete success. 

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