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Social Studies

Uhuru

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 11/12/2008

Now that the election is over, we can get back to some stories that have not gotten the attention they deserved. The one that's been on my mind is the bombastic and explosive casting of Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura in the remake of Star Trek. Now, I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, neither a Trekkie nor a Trekker (though I do know the difference between the two), but I enjoyed the series enough over the years and I'm sensitive enough to the cultural role of Uhura that I'm pretty darn interested in how Saldana's going to play it.

This is because she has huge shoes to fill. As played by Nichelle Nichols, communications officer Lt. Uhura was not only the sole black character on Gene Roddenberry's original series, she was one of the very few black faces on television in the '60s. And, of those black characters, she's the only one with real lasting resonance. This is amazing considering that she didn't have many lines or many memorable story arcs. In fact, my favorite Uhura story actually appears in a whole different media than television: DC Comics' Star Trek No. 30, "Uhura's Story." (Though I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, I do have an entire run of both DC and Marvel's comic runs, and I'm slowly piecing together the more expensive Gold Key run.) Still, despite the relative lack of screen time the actress enjoyed, Nichols embodied a combination of poise, confidence, intelligence, and, yeah, a whole bunch of sex appeal in that micro-mini-skirt uniform. Lt. Uhura was the first image of black womanhood that many people in America were ever exposed to that wasn't some horrific stereotype, and she's one of the most iconic images of blackness--which, just as a sidebar, is why Nichols' turn as Dorinda, the tight-clothes-wearing, foul-mouthed lady pimp in Truck Turner, was just unsettling. No matter what the role, Nichelle Nichols is Uhura.

As time goes on, and we move away from the bad old days when a non-stereotypical depiction of a black person was, in itself, worthy of being celebrated, it's easy to dismiss just how important Uhura was. It's not just me, though. In Racism 101, Nikki Giovanni pays tribute to Star Trek in general and Uhura specifically, quoting Toni Morrison's characterization of the black woman as ship and harbor and observing how apt it is that the "voice of The Federation was a black woman." Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison is on record as citing Uhura as one of her inspirations.

And to put it into perspective, I'm going to do something I always hesitate to do--I'm pulling the Martin Luther King Jr. card. In Nichols' 1994 autobiography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories (though I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, I have read all of the original cast's biographies), the actress reveals how frustrated she was with the aforementioned lack of meat to her role, and how she seriously considered quitting. Well, Dr. King caught wind of this--which, y'know, has always bugged me out, because this means Martin Luther King must have had operatives on the Desilu set--and told her the image of Lt. Uhura, a black woman in the future, working alongside a culturally diverse group, was too important for her to leave. That's right, doubters: Dr. King would be concerned about this casting, too.

I have to say, at first I wasn't too excited about Zoe Saldana being cast in the role of Nyota Uhura (though I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, I know the characters' first names) because I didn't think she had the acting heft or the looks to play the role. Now, this is where my wife rolls her eyes when she reads this, because she thinks I'm going to say it should have gone to Kerry Washington, because my wife thinks I'm obsessed with Kerry Washington. But, see, Kerry Washington would have been perfect, because she's so pretty, and she has such a commanding presence, and she just seems like she smells like strawberries, and she probably loves Madlib, and I'm just saying, that would be some casting right there. Anyway.

I've started to warm to the idea of Saldana as Uhura considerably, however. The few pictures that have come out from the shooting (though I'm not a huge Star Trek fan, I am signed up for the e-mail updates from the movie's web site) are starting to give me hope, and the one promotional picture of the actress absolutely nails the combination of beauty and confidence that Uhura needs. Who knows? If Saldana pulls this off, I might even get pulled into the whole Star Trek thing and become a huge fan.

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