As we all know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man of many words. It is, after all, how he was able to ignite change in the U.S. during a time of vehement opposition from the government and white society. But some of his most important words weren't delivered in a speech, or written in a jail cell—they were spoken in private conversation.
That one conversation, with a young black actress on the verge of making a major decision, ultimately led to the growing bevy of actresses, screenwriters and directors who are changing the face of Hollywood as we speak. Let me break it all the way down.
It all started in the late '60s with Nichelle Nichols, AKA Uhura of Star Trek. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Nichols said she was all set to quit the show after the first season. "As my popularity grew once the show was on the air, I was beginning to get all kinds of offers," she said. "And I decided I was going to leave—go to New York and make my way on the Broadway stage. And a funny thing happened." As the story goes, Nichols was at an NAACP fundraiser when one of the promoters came up to her and told her that a fan wanted to meet her. That fan ended up being King himself, a self-described Trekkie.
"He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, 'Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you.' He said, 'No, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.' So, I said to him, 'Thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.'
"And his face got very, very serious. And he said, 'What are you talking about?' And I said, 'Well, I told Gene [Roddenberry] just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered—' and he stopped me and said, 'You cannot do that.' And I was stunned. He said, 'Don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.' He says, 'Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?' I was speechless."
Nichols stayed onboard, inspiring young girls across the nation. One of them was Whoopi Goldberg, who had never seen a black woman onscreen that wasn't a servant. The official Star Trek website preserved Whoopi's incredible reaction to first seeing Nichols.
"Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house: 'Come here, mom! Everybody, come quick, come quick! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!' I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be."
Whoopi obviously went on to have a very successful career in comedy and acting. One of the most pivotal roles of her career was Celie in The Color Purple, a soft-spoken black girl in the early 20th century who transitions into adulthood while enduring a life of abuse. Lupita Nyong'o, who won the Academy Award for playing the heartrending character of Patsey in her first feature film, 12 Years a Slave, told Glamour she was moved to act after seeing both Whoopi and Oprah in The Color Purple.
"Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn't so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple, it dawned on me: 'Oh—I could be an actress!' We plant the seed of possibility."
Which brings us to the present darling of Black Hollywood, Issa Rae. Issa is best known these days for her hit HBO dramedy Insecure, which sharply (and hilariously) analyzes the complexities of black millennials. She's reported to be writing the script for the social-inspired heist film Lupita and Rihanna are set to star in for Netflix. It will be directed by Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma, the MLK-centered historical drama.
Let's look at this more closely: Issa is developing not one, but two new HBO shows, on top of Insecure. Rihanna, who started off as a teen singer, is now a humanitarian, makeup and fashion mogul, and budding actress. Ava, with works like the diverse-billed fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time and moving racial inequality documentary 13th, is on track to be one of the most influential women directors of our time. And Lupita is starring in the highly anticipated Marvel movie Black Panther, which has people clamoring for tickets weeks ahead of its release. These women are making certified power moves, something that wouldn't have been possible without their predecessors. You know how people are always going on and on about representation? Hello: this is exactly why it matters.
MLK knew what he was doing when he pulled Nichelle Nichols to the side six decades ago. But who knows if he knew just how big of an impact those words of advice would have.
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