Friday, 26 February 2010

Inspired to boldly go

"I recall asking my father, 'Daddy, what do people on others planets do? 
What are they like?' 
My father would always answer, 'Well, they're like themselves. 
They are whatever they are. They just might be different.' 
As a child, I thought that was fascinating."
- Nichelle Nichols

The cassette tape capturing the above quote prompts vivid memories of a beautiful Californian summer's day in 1992 when I interviewed Nichelle Nichols, the singer and actress best known for her role as Lieutenant Uhura (above) in Gene Roddenberry's phenomenally popular Star Trek. 

Graciously, Nichols had invited our five-strong film crew to invade her without-airs home outside Los Angeles. Actually, our crew wasn't so strong; cameraman hobblin' Bob filmed the interview with his broken ankle encased in plaster, Only Diamond, Uhura's, sorry(!), Nichols' house cat threatened to upstage her owner, meowing as Nichols (below) sublimely crafted Hollywoodesque replies to my questions about Uhura, Captain Kirk, the starship Enterprise and the latest gossip from the 23rd Century. (I'm reflected in the mirror; the 'tash and long hair have long since beamed up. Just ask Scotty).

Sadly, many of Nichols' pearls offered during an intriguing and intoxicating 60-minute interview ended up on the cutting room floor depriving British TV audiences who caught  our documentary, Black Sci-Fi (1992 dir.Terrence Francis), on BBC-2 later that year. So, in a roundabout way, what follows might qualify as an 'exclusive', albeit clipped 18 years later from my own archive. 

In the interview, Nichols explains how in the mid-1960s she nearly lost the Uhura role. Enjoying a trip to Paris, Nichols dashed into the trash two telegrams from Harry, her agent, begging her to return to California for the Star Trek audition. Only Harry's offer to pay for a first class round trip ticket persuaded a wearily sceptical Nichols to show up. Harry, described by Nichols as "a serious Southern gentlemen", told her: "I totally intend for you to get this role. And when you do I'll want my cotton-picking money back!"

Unaware of creator Roddenberry's grand ambitions for his Star Trek project, Nichols wasn't impressed to learn her character's role hadn't yet been written. Luckily, her audition involved reading the part of Spock, an accident sparking Roddenberry and Nichols to stumble upon the idea of Spock and Uhura's mentor-student relationship. 

Depressingly, despite her creative input, Nichols decided to leave Star Trek after the show's first season on TV. She'd expected that being cast as a commander in Captain Kirk's crew entailed her playing a starring role - but that expectation wasn't being met. Nichols nurtured strong Broadway ambitions and dreams. She'd helped to develop Star Trek scripts with marvellous roles for Uhura but saw them consistently cut back in rewrites."You have to remember this was 1966," explains Nichols. "The industry wasn't ready for a black woman in that kind of power role."

Disenchanted with Uhura's reduced role and intent on leaving, Nichols then experienced a life-changing encounter at a civil rights fund-raising event. Nichols was told someone, "a fan", would like to meet her. 
As she recalls: "And I turned around and there was Dr. Martin Luther King. I think I lost my voice."

"I am very much a fan of yours," said Dr. King, the civil rights leader. "My entire family watch your show. 
We love the way you've created this role, and you're so very important."
Nichelle said she thanked Dr. King (1929-1968) but told him she intended to quit the show.
- "You cannot," said Dr. King (below) firmly.
"What do you mean?" replied Nichelle, shaken.
- "You don't realise the importance of this role, of your being cast in this show," said Dr. King, who fully understood the power of film and TV to combat racism as much as any civil rights laws. "You represent the future," Dr. King told a stunned Nichols. "And we are there. The manner in which you have created this role, with dignity and character, sets a tone."

"I understand that black children..."
- "'s not just that black children and black people will see us as we are supposed to be. We know what we're supposed to be. But all other people, for the first time, will see us as we're supposed to be. 
Don't you understand, you have the first non-stereotypical role in television, in a major TV series of importance. 
And you establish us as equals. 
You embody all of that. 
That's very important. 
You must stay and continue to grow. 
Because when you're on the screen you're ten feet tall...don't worry about what they do or don't give you. 
You'll go down in history." 

"I was breathless," Nichols recalls during the interview.
"And I said to Dr. King, 'thank you, and yes, I will stay.' 
"And I've never regretted it.

"From that moment, I never treated my life in a frivolous manner again. I realised that what I do has an impact on other people's lives. Yes, I can, I can make a difference.

"And that's something we all must understand. 
We may not see it immediately. 
But every drop in an ocean has a ripple effect."

In the next posting I recall how Nichols explained how her decision to carry on as Uhura in 'Star Trek' inspired many to pursue their ambitions and dreams. This led to some soaring achievements...but tragedy also rippled.

Black Sci-Fi (1992), directed by Terrence Francis for Moonlight Films, was commissioned and transmitted by the BBC. The documentary also featured interviews with authors Samuel R. Delany, Steven Barnes and the now sadly missed, Octavia Butler.

Paul Coleman, London, February 2010


Anonymous said...

Black Sci-Fi sounds like an important work - any word on its being released on dvd or if it's available online anywhere?

Hello, I'm Paul. said...

Thanks for your comment...I'm keen to see it myself, bearing in mind the docu was made in 1992 in pre-digital days. The BBC must have it in their archive somewhere...I'll try and trace it and post any available link. Failing that I've got a copy on VHS in the will convert that and post a link.

mozucat said...

That would be awesome. According to WorldCat, it doesn't appear to be in US libraries/archives, which is lamentable.