American actress Grace Dell “Nichelle” Nichols, known from the cult series “Spaceship Enterprise”, died at the age of 89. “I regret to inform you that the great light in the firmament no longer shines for us as it has for so many years,” said her son Kyle Johnson. In 1966, Nichelle Nichols landed the role of Officer Uhura on Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking Star Trek television series, which she eventually starred in multiple episodes and six feature films. Its role does not seem to be big; but since he works on the bridge alongside Kirk and Spock, he often appears in the photo.
Black woman in a science fiction adventure. A black woman who does not do unskilled work but is an equal scientist on the male (white) team. And who kisses a white man for the first time on American TV as a black woman. She became a symbol of black self-confidence amid the unrest of the late 1960s, which culminated in the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King. When mankind goes into space, whites and blacks will do it together.
Road to Star Trek
Grace Dell “Nichelle” Nichols was born in 1932 in a small town near Chicago. She starts out as a singer in jazz bands and nightclubs. She played a cameo role as a dancer in the 1959 film adaptation of the opera “Porgy and Bess” with Sidney Poitier; she gets more and more small roles through her musical role on Broadway. One of them is Gene Roddenberry’s short-lived television series The Lieutenant. The series is now forgotten, but many actors later appear on “Star Trek”. Nichols is a singer in London when her agent offers her a science fiction role. Would have preferred to continue to enjoy her first visit to Europe; but her agent pays for the plane ticket. This is how the interview takes place.
Uhuru for freedom
It was originally intended to carry the role that George Takei was given then: Lieutenant Sulu. But it sounds too much like the Zulu ethnic group, and therefore too obvious. Nichols is already wearing the name Uhura in questioning without realizing it. Because the book she is devouring takes her into the room without further ado; and that is why he tells the audience about it at the beginning. Uhuru, an account of the history of Africa by Robert Ruark. The title means freedom in the East African Swahili language. On the other hand, she doesn’t know much about Star Trek: first, the team has to explain the planned series to her.
Her role is not yet in the script; so says a longer passage written for Spock. When he’s done with that, co-producer Bob Justman says, “See if Nimoy has the deal.”
For Nichols, the word “Uhuru” covers the entire history of the African continent, and thus the history of its roots. Roddenberry likes the name but sounds a little harsh to him. Nichols offers him Uhura.
Experts believe that Uhura’s name is Nyota (star). But he was never named in the series, and only later “invented” the band’s biography book where it spread further. He first hits the screen in a 2009 feature film.
Martin Luther King as the biggest fan
By the end of Season One, Nichols is fed up with Star Trek. Basically, he has to press buttons and say verses like “Hello, open frequencies, Captain.” she quits. Especially since she has a great deal on the Broadway musical for which her heart actually beats. Roddenberry is terrified and asks her to think about it over the weekend. But fate says otherwise. She is invited to a charity event, during which she is asked to say hello to her biggest fan. In anticipation of the teenage Star Trek geek, he turns to face Martin Luther King. Your idol. And he thinks: whoever the fan is, he has to wait now. But King says: I’m your biggest fan. Our family is your biggest fans. Star Trek is the only series that our younger children can get up (because it’s turned on at bedtime) to watch. Nichols wants to admit he’s leaving the show, but King won’t let it finish. For the first time, black people were seen on the screen as they were meant to be seen. Intelligent, qualified, beautiful. Gene Roddenberry would open the door to how the world should see black people. Your role is not a black role, it is not a female role. Anyone can complete it.
Nichols is upset at first that she should be the icon, but accepts her fate. Earlier next week, she tells Roddenberry about the meeting. He submits his resignation with the words: God bless Dr. Martin Luther King.
Nichols has never regretted that step, even if the show doesn’t have many viewers at first. After the first season, it is threatening to end. Fans and writers launch a protest campaign. But in season two, the odds don’t improve. So, the third and final only comes by cutting the budget and moving the show to a late show. The fact that the series was one of the first to be shot in color might have lengthened its lifespan, as color shows were still rare at the time.
At the end of the first season, you can see this famous kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk. Even if the camera only points to it, you cannot see their lips, it is considered the first kiss between a black woman and a white man on American television.
Star Trek triumph
Only after the end of the original series does the triumph of “Star Trek” begin. The series can be sold in more and more countries. In Germany, it was broadcast under the title “Spaceship Enterprise”, with a delay of six years, starting in 1972. As usual with ARD and ZDF at the time, it was incomplete and each episode was sometimes shortened by a few minutes. The number of fans grew and so, ten years after shooting, in 1979, the first fictional film with the old crew was made. And from 1987 to the next series “The Next Century” with Captain Picard.
One of Nichelle Nichols’ biggest fans gets a guest role there: Whoopi Goldberg. She is only ten years old when she meets the lieutenant. she sees Uhura on TV for the first time. A black woman set in the future. She runs around the house excitedly and exclaims: Come quickly, there’s a black woman on TV; and she’s not a maid. From that moment on, Goldberg knew that as a black woman, she could achieve anything. And when she is able to talk to Roddenberry years later, she says: It’s all Nichelle Nichols’ fault. Her and his fault.
Briefly referred to as TOS by fans, Nichols stars in the first six feature films along with the rest of the crew after the original series. (The first feature film is one of the few space films shown in East German cinemas.)
The seventh part of “Getting Together” from 1994 introduces the crew of the next series, “The Next Century”, which has been realized since 1987. Kirk meets Picard. Apart from Captain Scotty and Chekov, you can only see three actors from the old crew. Spock and Bones agree but refuse. Whoopi Goldberg is most disappointed with Uhura’s absence. Of course, she would like to star in a movie with Nichols.
Cooperation with NASA
After Star Trek, Nichols only appeared sporadically on screen, such as in the five episodes of Heroes. It’s mostly guest appearances. He is devoted to music, releases several albums. And he works for NASA as an ambassador, courting women and blacks. Successfully. Astronauts and other employees would cite it as one of the reasons they want to work for the agency, NASA writes on its website.
With Uhura’s death, the regular Star Trek crew continues to thin out. DeForest Kelly, who plays “Bones”, died in 1999, James Doohan aka Scotty then in 2005. Leonard Nimoy aka Spock died in 2015. Also gone are Grace Lee Whitney aka Kirk’s assistant (and friend) Janice, Majel Barrett (Gene Roddenberry’s wife), nurse and flight computer voice – and John Winston alias Lieutenant. Kyle
But the death of Nichelle Nichols is not Uhuruy’s. Zoe Saldana plays a scientist in the movie series that has been in production since 2009. Novice Celia Rose Gooding takes on the role of the all-new “Star Trek – Strange New Worlds” franchise.
August 1, 2022