She changed the space program forever.
It’s inspiring to hear Nichelle Nichols speak about the moment she realized things weren’t as they were supposed to be because she realized it within a moment of awe. Comprehending how something too crucially important to be missing from the magic of what she was shown isn’t an easy feat because we too often get caught up in excitement to think through the next steps or look beyond the superficial veils of marketing by acknowledging the deficiencies that manufactured sheen was meant to cover up. Nichols’ impressive ability to simultaneously listen with rapt attention as a NASA scientist explained the impossible achievements of real space travel while talking at a “Star Trek” convention and also point out how the visuals accompanying that truth were lacking cannot be discounted.
Todd Thompson‘s documentary Woman in Motion looks to ensure that it never will by delving into the actor’s legacy as a NASA ambassador—a position she’d held for almost half a century as a result of that initial realization. Despite finding herself amazed at what humanity had accomplished through the space program, Nichols looked at the videos and still images used to document it with disappointment because all she saw were white men. She had just spent three years on a television set striving to help advance inclusivity in America by depicting a mixed-race crew only to be reminded how far her present was from making that fiction a reality. She therefore challenged NASA to do better and ultimately put her time and money into making it so.
To understand why is to go back to the beginning. The first thirty minutes of the film is thus an abbreviated introduction to Nichols herself and the trajectory that took her aspirations for stardom on the stage to the world of television and beyond. With anecdotes about Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King Jr. pushing her forward as a woman confident in her individuality and her power as an icon through on-screen representation, we learn how her craft led into celebrity and how that celebrity inevitably led into activism. It was Nichols’ notoriety that got her a forum with which to write about America’s inequality issues and it was her reach that got her an audience with those at NASA in positions to instill necessary change.
Ronald D. Moore‘s show “For All Mankind” ostensibly hinges its first season’s plot on a fictionalized version of Nichols’ mission to diversify NASA’s “boys’ club” with her bluntly sobering words: “They don’t believe you.” That’s what she told the administration when they lamented their inability to recruit women and minority applicants despite specifically asking for them. They invited Nichols to see how far things had come behind the scenes yet the people she saw working on staff weren’t the people being used to pitch their call to arms for the shuttle program. Without someone these demographics could trust vouching for a government institution known for breaking promises made solely for publicity, NASA remained a pipe dream. Lt. Uhura couldn’t be that person, but Nichelle Nichols could.
Her discussion on this difference is an important one because it proves how savvy, present, and knowledgeable she was about the issue when compared to agencies making a ton of money to pitch the exact opposite. The middle third of Woman in Motion is its best as a result because we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of the stipulations she set for her involvement and her subsequent success. Nichols traveled the country, recorded radio spots, and booked talk show appearances to speak directly to people the establishment purposefully ignored for so long that it couldn’t help implicitly ignore them now. It’s impossible not to smile at her enthusiasm, smarts, and refusal to be pandered to regardless of that pandering’s intent. This wasn’t a stunt. This was serious.
To prove it, Thompson and his writing team must go further than Nichols herself to capture the reverberations of her actions. The final third is thus largely composed of interviews with those who joined NASA because of her recruitment and others who joined because of their ensuing achievements. The period had its highs (the first shuttle was named Enterprise and invited the “Star Trek” cast for a photo opportunity) and lows (the Challenger disaster affected Nichols like a death in the family) with its impact on her and hers upon it never diminished. The story beats and breadth of interviewees from numerous fields are the film’s biggest draw and the latter’s authentic joy in the topic goes a long way to overcome any limitations its generic construction holds.
We’re here to learn about Nichols’ deserved place in our space program’s history not as a mascot leveraging fame, but an innovator and influencer who quite literally dragged it into a present too many were still quick to dismiss as the “future.” Because if no one in power is willing to confront the overall issues being faced, change can only happen incrementally if at all. Inequality as a product of a lack of resources can’t be a reason for why inequality becomes accepted. Heroes like Nichols and her collaborators must be given seats at the table to figure out how to both provide those resources and embolden those who already have them to use them with the confidence and self-worth necessary to remake the norm in their image.
 Nichelle Nichols of the Paramount+ Original movie Woman In Motion. Photo Cr: Paramount+ ©2021, All Rights Reserved.
 Col. Frederick D. Gregory of the Paramount+ Original movie Woman In Motion. Photo Cr: Paramount+ ©2021, All Rights Reserved.
 Coverage of the Paramount+ Original movie Woman In Motion. Photo Cr: Paramount+ ©2021, All Rights Reserved.