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Nichelle Nichols has had quite a diverse career, working in film and on the stage, but she's undoubtedly known best for her performance as Star Trek's Nyota Uhura. Working aboard the USS Enterprise made her a pop-culture icon, but it also prepared her to play an important part in real-life space exploration by working with NASA, as a new documentary details.
Woman in Motion, in theaters this week, tells the story of Nichols' instrumental role in diversifying the American space program.
"I can't say I was a Star Trek fan growing up, but I, of course, knew of it and I watched all the movies and I knew who [Nichelle Nichols] was, but I had no idea of her involvement in NASA," admits director Todd Thompson, who spearheaded this movie after learning about Nichols' work outside of her role as Uhura.
Speaking with SYFY WIRE ahead of the February release of the documentary, which features interviews and testimonials from Nichols and a wide range of people associated with the Final Frontier, Thompson says one of the reasons he pursued the documentary was because he felt it was a story that not enough people knew about.
"She was responsible for why we now have diversity in space and I had no idea about that story whatsoever," Thompson says. "And you have to remember, this predates the movie Hidden Figures, which I think took everyone by surprise, too. So I sort of had that same reaction when I heard Nichelle's story... I immediately recognized it as a story that needed to be told, that had to be told."
Nichols' work with NASA was multifaceted. It started with convincing NASA and government officials that not only was there a dearth of minority and women astronauts but that they hadn't tried hard enough to correct the issue. She also starred in ad campaigns convincing young students and budding scientists to apply for NASA employment. Many of NASA's former and current scientists and astronauts credit their careers to Nichols and those advertisements.
Woman in Motion details how her work in Star Trek facilitated this monumental task. It turns out seeing yourself reflected in popular media has a positive effect. With America already used to seeing Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise, often playing the role as the liaison between the mostly human crew and some unknown cosmic force, she was the ideal candidate for this role.
"She has this charisma and energy about her that not only embraces you but engages you and you hang on her every word, whether she is talking or singing," Thompson says of the titular woman in motion herself. "She was great, she was a pleasure to work with, she was such a great team player and fun to be around."
In the documentary, Nichols comes off as friendly and human, despite the larger-than-life task she assigned herself. Thompson explains that one of his goals was to drive home how important of an endeavor diversifying the American space program was, and he had the benefit of half a century of history to look back on to help tell this story.
"Documentaries, a lot of times, explore current events and it becomes a sort of fact-finding mission as you go from one interview to the next," Thompson says. "This was a little different in the sense that we were doing more of a historical piece of something that had already happened. One of our first steps was to identify who all the players were and who she worked with, all the people that she touched along the way. We made a... shortlist of about 40 to 50 names."
That Thompson's "shortlist" of those Nichols influenced is such a large and diverse assortment of people goes to show just how influential she was. The documentary includes interviews with Nichols, astronauts, NASA officials, civil rights figures, and more than a few celebrities — individuals who you wouldn't expect to have anything to do with NASA make an appearance to give further insight.
"They were all people who we identified as, someway or somehow, taking part in Nichelle's journey," Thompson says, adding that he hopes the film gives filmgoers a glimpse into how Nichols sees the world. "There is a lot we can learn from our past as we look forward to where we are headed. I hope audiences walk away with a sense of inspiration. I want them to feel a love for each other, I want them to feel excited about everything we have accomplished and everything yet to come."
Woman in Motion is in theaters in select locations on Feb. 2, Feb. 4, and Feb. 6 via Fathom Events.