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A True Pioneer: Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022)

I was born the year after “Star Trek” was cancelled, so my first interaction with the series was through the reruns that ran on New York City’s WPIX-TV in the 70’s. Every week, my cousins and I would eagerly say the introduction along with William Shatner, “Space. The final frontier…” before launching into an ear-splitting rendition of the theme song’s soprano vocal. I’ve never been a science-fiction lover, and to be honest, there are far bigger fans of the show in my family than I am. I was eventually on Team Star Wars in my youth. However, my familiarity with Gene Roddenberry’s immortal series came from those communal viewings at my aunt’s house. She was a fan, but would never watch the show with us. Instead, she would say “just call me when Uhura’s on.”

Lt. Uhura was a fictional Black woman in space, in a time when there were no people of color nor women in space for real. She was fashionable, smart, witty and ran a control panel with gorgeous nails unfit for pushing buttons. She left an impression on us kids—what innocent crushes we had!—and she was played by Nichelle Nichols. Nichols portrayed Uhura for the run of the series, and for the first six “Star Trek” theatrical movies that followed. For any Black kid, or little girl in general, with dreams of being an astronaut, Uhura made the idea a possibility, an aspiration that may not be as far-fetched as we thought. For that alone, Nichelle Nichols was celebrated for decades, but today, she is mourned. Nichols died on July 31, 2022. She was 89.

Forget about the other series and the spinoffs and reboots for a moment and focus on the environment Roddenberry built for his characters in the original series. In addition to the expected White characters, there was George Takei’s Mr. Sulu and Uhura. Additionally, as any good science fiction program should do, “Star Trek” used its made-up universe to depict scenarios that would upset “polite society.” Most famously, Nichols made history by sharing television’s first interracial kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, a moment that the NBC censors were unable to remove because Shatner intentionally ruined the one alternate take they had.

How important was Lt. Uhura in popular culture? The story goes that Nichols had intended on departing the series at the end of its first season to return to her first love, the stage. She had been in theatrical productions of “Carmen Jones” and “Porgy and Bess” before being offered “Star Trek.” Her newfound popularity resulted in a Broadway offer too good to resist. Roddenberry pleaded with her to reconsider, asking her to take the weekend to mull things over. That weekend, she attended an NAACP fundraiser where the host asked her to meet with “the biggest fan” of the show. That fan turned out to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King went on and on about how much he loved the show, which gave Nichols the confidence to tell him she had quit. “I said I was leaving ‘Star Trek’ and he said ‘you cannot!’” she told the Archive of American Television. “And I felt like that little boy [Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes] ‘whatchu talkin’ bout, Dr. King?! ... he said ‘for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful…[Black] people who can go into space!’” Lt. Uhura wasn’t technically written as a Black role nor a female one, so she could easily be replaced by anything, even an alien. She had to stay on to ensure Black history was made. “And I was angry,” Nichols said. “Why me?”

Just that story alone highlights the importance of Nichols being in the right place at the right time when Gene Roddenberry decided to bring a multicultural future to NBC in 1966. In addition to inspiring a generation to dream of boldly going where no man has gone before, she worked with NASA to make it possible for several. Her volunteer work with the organization helped recruit Black and female future astronauts, including Dr. Sally Ride and Challenger astronauts Dr. Judith Resnick and Dr. Ronald McNair, the last of whom my high school alma mater in Jersey City was renamed for a few years after I’d graduated. Though she didn’t get to go into space herself, Nichols rode in the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Boeing 747SP, a plane with a telescope that flies 41,000 feet above the Earth to observe the stars and planets.

As someone who dreamt of being an astronaut and who loves all things NASA, these fictional and real-life achievements would be more than enough to endear Nichols to me. But here’s a dirty little secret that will reveal the primary reason she has my eternal devotion: Lt. Uhura wasn’t the first time I’d seen Nichelle Nichols. Before I ever laid eyes on “Star Trek,” I went to see “Truck Turner” at the PIX theater in my hometown.

“Truck Turner” was a 1974 Blaxploitation movie starring Isaac Hayes as the titular skip tracer and Yaphet Kotto as his primary nemesis. It was directed by Jonathan Kaplan and edited by future Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn. Kotto and Hayes are big, intimidating men, but their characters are no match for Nichelle Nichols’ Dorinda. Even Kaplan’s camera is afraid to get too close to her lest she yank it off the crane and throw it! Dorinda runs a stable of sex workers for her main squeeze, Gator, the pimp Truck Turner’s been hired to catch for jumping bail.

It doesn’t matter who the other characters are, because when Nichols is on the screen rocking those incredible '70s outfits, she rules this movie like a boss. Dorinda is fierce, terrifying, brutal, tough and profane as hell. She has a filthy line about Iceland that alone earns the film its R-rating. There isn’t a piece of scenery Nichols doesn’t aim to chew, and her villainous performance is mesmerizing as it veers from lowbrow comedy to intense violence. You’re not worried about her, you’re praying she doesn’t kill Truck Turner with her bare hands. Along with Shelley Winters and Kathryn Loder, she owns the mantle of the baddest of the “Blaxploitation bad girls.”

Dorinda may have my heart, but to everyone else in the universe I inhabit, Nichelle Nichols will be forever beloved for playing Lt. Uhura. When Gene Roddenberry died, she sang a song she’d written for him at his funeral. It’s great that she was around to hear her fans sing her praises, praises they will continue to sing as loudly and fervently as my cousins and I sang that theme song back in my aunt’s living room.

Odie Henderson

Odie "Odienator" Henderson has spent over 33 years working in Information Technology. He runs the blogs Big Media Vandalism and Tales of Odienary Madness. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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