The Many Lives of Nichelle Nichols in Beyond Uhura

Beyond Uhura by Nichelle NicholsBeyond Uhura by Nichelle Nichols
Rating: 4/5 stars
#52Challenge prompt: a biography

Nichols is an incredible person. Full stop. I’m so glad I read this book, and I recommend it to anyone who’s a Star Trek fan, interested in Nichols’ life, or generally curious about Hollywood and performing from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. Let me tell you, Nichols leads a life.

Beyond Uhura was published in 1994 when Nichols was 62. This was an interesting period in Star Trek history because creator Gene Roddenberry had just died; it was clear there would be no more Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) movies; Nichols and other cast members had started publicly talking about William Shatner (TOS’ James T. Kirk) being a shithead; and many TOS actors wrote or would write autobiographies in this decade.

Nichols is a clear storyteller. And you can see how the stories presented here are the stories she tells herself about her life, her career, and her worldview. These I’m sure are mostly the stories she’d honed from the 1970s to Beyond Uhura’s writing on the convention circuit and in interviews. Though I will never say no to hearing again the story of how Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her not to quit TOS.

Nichols on Gene Roddenberry

Some of the most challenging parts — for me — were Nichols’ writing about Gene Roddenberry. To her, Roddenberry’s vision of the future not only aligned with her own worldview, but with her own family’s story* and experiences. Not to mention, Nichols and Roddenberry had a pre-Star Trek romance, making her fondness for him beyond acting opportunities and the overall progressive vision of Star Trek.

We know for as much as Roddenberry preached equality, he also wanted Deanna Troi to have three breasts and sexually harassed women on set. Not doubt it was even worse in the 1960s when laws around sexual harassment in the workplace were brand new and largely unenforced. Grace Lee Whitney (TOS’ Janice Rand) wrote about her sexual assault and harassment by a man she calls “The Executive” on TOS’ set and how it led to her being terrified and quitting the show. Speculation points to Roddenberry as one of a small handful of men this could’ve been. These stories have only been publicly heard now, decades after Roddenberry’s death and — perhaps most importantly — after the death of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, the first lady of Star Trek. (The things we love are all problematic, friends.)

Nichols did write about her romance with Roddenberry, and how he dated both her and Majel at the same time. There are several hints that Roddenberry would’ve loved to be polyamorous with them, or how he frequently joked about Nichols — who dumped him, in part over her preexisting friendship with Majel and her general, unspoken avoidance of marrying again — was the one who got away. Besides those jokes, Nichols maintains their working relationship on TOS was completely professional, and all three of them did not tell other cast or crew members about the past relationship while TOS was in television production.

Nineteen Ninety-Four’s Beyond Uhura opens with Roddenberry’s recent funeral. Nichols reflects fondly on her friend and shares the song she wrote to him and sang at his funeral. She goes further down memory lane with Whoopi Goldberg as these two groundbreaking black actors recounted how Roddenberry’s vision allowed their acting dreams to spread into roles outside of the Hollywood pigeonholing of black actors as maid or slaves.

This does contrast later with Nichols’ brief acknowledgment that Roddenberry stifled her post-Star Trek career as he wanted her open for only roles on his shows. Though her close friendship with both the Roddenberrys and his recent death seemed to have stopped her from going further.

Beyond Uhura and pre-Star Trek

Outside of her time on Star Trek, Nichols lived/lives a fascinating life.

*Nichols grew up outside of Chicago in a fully integrated town and in a mixed race family, and her father was the goodhearted mayor who told Al Capone where to put it. Remember, in the US, this was pre-Loving v Virginia and interracial marriage was illegal.

Nichols knew immediately she wanted to be on stage. Her first love was dancing, and she became — through both her own and her father’s insistence and belief in her — the first black ballerina on any national stage. Though she fell in love with Afro-Cuban dance, and as an underage teenager, talked her way into performing in adults-only spaces. (Language warning: Nichols’ uses the words ‘exotic,’ ‘primitive,’ and ‘orient’ to describe her dancing, and while used in positive ways, she probably wouldn’t use those words now.)

It’s easy to see how Nichols’ career could’ve ended early as she married quickly — to a man who didn’t like to compete with her for the spotlight — got pregnant, and divorced by 18-years-old. But you can tell her tenacity for her career never stopped as she discusses how she performed as part of Duke Ellington’s show while two months pregnant and hiding it.

Nichols spends little time on her life as a mother — no doubt to respect her son’s privacy — except in that she credits her parents with helping to raise him and supporting her career goals. Like many performers of the era, Nichols frequented many clubs, but tried to avoid mob-run establishment; though ending up at one run by mobster Frankie Balistrieri. She also discusses being sexually assaulted and standing up to the guy.

Eventually, Nichols found herself in Hollywood. In some of her first gigs, she met and became lifelong friends with Maya Angelou. She also acted with Sydney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr, who the latter she dated. Nichols then dumped Davis for Frank Sinatra.

They dated between Sinatra’s marriages to Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow, and while Nichols claims Sinatra wanted to marry her and she refused, one can’t help but think about how all his wives and his most public romances were with white women. (If you want to learn more about Frank Sinatra’s loves, I highly recommend the You Must Remember This podcast episodes on him.) Their romance fizzled as they worked together to produce James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie.

In her pre-TOS recollections, Nichols does a lot of name dropping. At first this came off as a little braggy, but I believe it is Nichols showing her power before Star Trek where she, as a black woman entertainer in the 1950s/60s, was already a star. Additionally, many of the celebrities she name-drops are other black people so in a way she’s celebrating all their success.

TOS and Beyond: the gossip*

Gene Roddenberry become a clear champion of hiring Nichols on his shows, regardless of their flopped romance. In many ways, Nichols was indebted to him. NBC refused to hire Nichols full-time as a TOS regular cast member — and Roddenberry kept this a secret for many years, even from Nichols herself. Instead, in the early days, he kept her on set for long hours where she was paid a day rate, which was a higher rate than they would’ve paid her had she been under contract and expected for those long hours.

This wasn’t the only racism Nichols faced on the NBC lot. There were guards who wouldn’t let her into the studio. Nichols recounts how she never got any fanmail, and then one day, upon having to go to the mailroom herself, she discovered the mountains of fanmail the racist delivery person had withheld from her. She also speaks about how crew members compared her to Whitney, and when Whitney left TOS, they commented how Nichols should’ve been the one to go instead. Which is even more horrifying when you consider why Whitney left. (These crew members eventually apologized to Nichols for their behavior.)

Nichols speaks of recording Season 1 with love, but not so much for the other two seasons. According to Nichols, Roddenberry’s health problems leading him to move away from day-to-day operations, Gene Coon taking over and his own burn out, and Shatner’s huge ego caused many problems on set. Additionally, she became frustrated over cut lines, lack of scenes, and general bad storylines, especially in Season 3.

Obviously, MLK’s call to her played a huge role in Nichols staying for all three seasons. But I also wonder about her indebtedness to Roddenberry.

In Beyond Uhura, Nichols tells a bit of a different story about the famous first interracial kiss on TV between Uhura and Kirk. Currently, most cast members recount how it was supposed to be Spock, but Shatner suggested they change it to Kirk as they would only further be othering Uhura by saying only an alien would kiss a black woman. Here, Nichols attributes the kiss change to Shatner’s ego, and his desire to be the one in the spotlight. Especially if it took away the spotlight from Leonard Nimoy (TOS’ Spock). She notes they did one non-kiss take, which Shatner ruined (on purpose), and they did 36 different takes of the kiss.

As TOS wound down, Nichols was blocked by Roddenberry for a role on Mannix. He wanted her for a pilot, which wasn’t picked up, while Mannix ran for seven seasons. And she found herself without much television work post-TOS.

Until syndication happened, causing a revival in Star Trek love. Then Star Trek conventions became a thing, and Star Trek: The Animated Series was made. Nichols attended what she refers to as the first Star Trek convention of 8,000 people in 1975, and then a convention of 30,000 attendees in Chicago later that year, which was the first convention with the entire cast and Roddenberry.

It was here, Nichols met people from NASA. She then started freelancing to help NASA recruit women and people of color. You can tell she loved her work with NASA in how it inspired and directly recruited Sally Ride and the first African American men into the program. However, Nichols isn’t afraid to talk about her business savvy in getting paid and setting boundaries with them.

Then TOS movies… Nichols is literally the only person I’ve ever heard praise Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And this wasn’t an actor recalling the vision or the nostalgia over filming Star Trek again, no, she actually thinks it’s a good movie.

Then Nichols doesn’t like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan because the uniforms were itchy and Spock dies. (Spoiler for a 35-year-old movie!) To be fair, Nichols calls Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home “a near perfect movie”, which is a correct opinion.

While she speaks highly of going conventions and meeting fans, Nichols tells the story about the worst con I’ve ever heard of, and as a professional event organizer, gives me nightmares. The convention began with 20,000 attendees buying tickets, but only a few hundred with physical tickets being let in. Funds were badly misappropriated by con staff, who seemingly fled. A hired band quit as they weren’t paid, and none of the Star Trek actors (except Nimoy) saw a dime. Which the full cast was there. Nichols paid the sound crew herself, as it was in a sports dome and no one could hear anyone on stage. And then, a fire broke out elsewhere in the building — and was contained — so Nichols and the Star Trek cast had to calm everyone down and stop them from stampeding to the exits. Wow.

As Nichols continues her journey into the films, she begins to talk more trash about Shatner’s ego, and his and Nimoy’s fighting over control. She seems to think this is the major reason Shatner got to direct Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Though she says he was a better and nicer director than actor. Even if she remained chuffed over it not being her singing voice in her infamous Star Trek V dancing scene.

Nichols addresses the racism in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’s script concerning the treatment of the Klingons. She rightly felt too many echos of how black people had been treated and talked about in the dialog. Originally, Uhura was supposed to say, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” when the Klingons join the crew for a shared meal, which Nichols refused to do. There can be no good intent claims from the writers here.

Post-Star Trek, Nichols talks about how she rediscovered her original first loves of singing and dancing. And how she spent more time with her mother before she died. In many ways Beyond Uhura peters out with Shatner’s autobiography claims of Nichols and other cast members confronting him on his bad behavior, and the ways he tried publicly to make his behavior everyone else’s problem.

The book ends with the 1994 earthquake, and it gets a little too new age-y for me. Then Nichols closes on a promotion for her upcoming fictional book Saturn’s Child, which feels bizarre and anti-climatic, but I guess this was the way to reach her audience in the early 1990s.

*I feel this section of my review is gossip that interested me, as I am Star Trek garbage.

Tl;dr — I always have a lot of say about Trek

Overall, I’m very glad to have finally read Beyond Uhura. Nichols is an incredible person, who’s lived in a varied and amazing life. She encapsulates the very best of American ideals and Star Trek ideals. Even if, yes, a few of these stories I’d heard before, and yes, Nichols is a little too much of a Roddenberry apologist. I did love hearing about her life from her directly. If you’re a Star Trek fan, or interested in Hollywood history, pick this up.

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