Film / TV

bhm: nichelle nichols and complicated representations

February 28, 2019
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My mother would tell me that I could be and do whatever I wanted with my life, as long as my ambition and imagination could handle it. I do not know if she believed herself when she said this, but nonetheless she convinced me it was true. It’s an idea that has never left me. Even today, when I only have dreams and hopes, I still think that what gives me bravery is the overwhelming amount of times my mother promised this. Alas, media representation still shapes the possibilities that my mind could conjure in childhood and young adulthood. And media representations could be toxic — instilling a belief that only cishet white people could be powerful, righteous, complex, interesting and Black folks were inherently evil, subservient, and flat.

Nichelle Nichols was an actress that shattered this truth. As a teenager, I would see Nichols dip between two personalities: “Shut up, you junkie whores!” Nichols as Dorinda in 1974’s Truck Turner was fascinating. I had never seen a Black woman be mean before on television, but not just mean, but in control and ruthless. Although villainous, Nichols character was captivating — and provocative for the era. Blaxploitation as a genre was already undertaking critique from the Black community for it’s stereotyping of Black folks as hyper-sexual, criminal, and primarily located in poor neighborhoods. Nichols’ portrayal of a ruthless madam threatening to “cut women’s throats” only added to the tension around media representations. However, a young me, feigning for representation and hungry for an era I did not live in, was enthralled by Nichols’ portrayal of a type of Black womanhood I’d never seen. She was not a servant and she existed solely to assuage the anxieties of white people.

This was a far cry from Nichols’ role on Star Trek, a role even Martin Luther King Jr. embraced her in saying upon meeting her. “I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.” Nichols role as a bridge officer named Uhura on Star Trek was revolutionary, as noted by King, and was one of the few examples of Black women defying the tight tropes of a mammy that was often offered.

This space in characters I think, at least subconsciously, helped push me to see the vastness of Black folks. The tiny moments of me devouring Black culture — both niche and pop — complicated how I believed Black folks can show up, and in result, how I believed how vast and complicated I could be. In essence, where my mother’s promises ended, Nichelle Nichols’ dynamic performances began.