Review by Sean Boelman
The influence that Star Trek has had on entertainment media is pretty widely known, but its influence on greater society is less frequently discussed. Todd Thomspon’s documentary Woman in Motion hopes to bring more attention to that notion, exploring the story of actress Nichelle Nichols.
The film explores Nichols’s life, first as the actress playing Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series, and later being recruited by NASA to help inspire minority astronauts to apply to go to space. Offering a little bit of everything, the movie is likely to appeal to both Trekkies and those who have a particular interest in outer space.
Although it is trying to juggle a lot in its hour-and-forty-five-minute runtime, Thompson structures it pretty effectively. It’s straightforward, but effectively splitting the film into two sections — one more fanboyish and the other more scientific — allows it to feel like Thompson is telling Nichols’s story as comprehensively as possible.
Nichols definitely has her fair share of fans who don’t need this movie to make them admire her, but Thompson makes it impossible not to respect the tremendous work she did. The film is also successful in providing deeper insight into Nichols as a person beyond her public image, something which biographical documentaries often struggle to do.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie explores Nichols’s role as an influential Black woman. As a significant role model for young women of color, Nichols had a tremendous responsibility, and in candid and insightful interviews, she discusses how that obligation to her community influenced her career decisions.
Although the talking heads with Nichols herself are undeniably the highlight of the film, Thompson also got some other notable people to reaffirm the points being made. From retired NASA scientists to some of the people who worked with Nichols on Star Trek, there is a good variety of voices to be heard in the movie.
The film is very competent in technical terms, but it is also mostly safe with its production. Blending interviews with archive footage, Thompson aims to tell his story in as efficient of a way as possible, resulting in something very by-the-book. However, the extensive library of materials to which Thompson got access clearly came in quite handy.
Woman in Motion is a must-see documentary for fans of Star Trek, but that doesn’t mean it’s just a niche play. This is also a really interesting exploration of minorities in the media, and is an important watch as such.
Woman in Motion screens in theaters on February 2, 4, and 6.