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Zoe Saldana remembered her trailblazing Star Trek predecessor Nichelle Nichols, who died on Saturday at age 89, in a recent Instagram post. The actress made history as one of the first Black women in a feature role on a major television series when she portrayed Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series for three years before reprising her role in six movies. In 2009, Saldana began a seven-year stint as the same character across three films.
“I’m saddened to learn of Nichelle Nichols’ passing,” Saldana wrote. “We have lost a true star – a unique artist who was ahead of her time always. She’s an icon, an activist and most importantly an amazing woman – who blazed a trail that has shown so many how to see women of color in a different light. Her strive for equality was unwavering.”
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The actress went on to recall her first time meeting Nichols as she picked up the still-blazing torch the veteran had lit, saying: “Meeting Nichelle was truly a very special moment in my life. Her energy was infectious every time I was in her presence. She convinced me in believing that anything was achievable, if you put your heart into it. I mean, she inspired Mae Jemison to follow her dreams of becoming an astronaut and that’s exactly what Mae did.”
Nichols’ time on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura was nearly a short-lived stint as the actress set her sights on a Broadway gig. Shortly after deciding to move on from the television role, she had an unsuspected meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who reminded her of the power of representation.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Nichols remembered the civil rights activist telling her: “If you leave, that door can be closed because your role is not a black role, and is not a female role; he can fill it with anybody, even an alien.”
After their meeting, Nichols decided to stick with the role. Eighteen years after her stretch as Uhura ended, another Black woman stepped into the spotlight she left behind. And six years after Saldana retired from the role, another Black woman, Celia Rose Gooding, was cast in the role.
“I knew I had big shoes to fill when I was chosen to play Uhura, and Nichelle made me feel safe, told me to play her with all the confidence in the world,” Saldana shared. “My hope is that we continue to keep her memory alive by celebrating her amazing body of work, and by spreading the message of peace and equality amongst all people. She lived a long, impactful life and not only prospered, but helped so many others prosper too.”
In a statement, Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson shared: “Last night, my mother, Nichelle Nichols, succumbed to natural causes and passed away. Her light, however, like the ancient galaxies now being seen for the first time, will remain for us and future generations to enjoy, learn from, and draw inspiration. Hers was a life well lived and as such a model for us all.”
Saldana concluded her tribute with a quote from Maya Angelous, which read: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
She emphasized the sentiment, added: “I agree with this statement with the exception of Nichelle Nichols. It’ll be hard to forget what she said and hard to forget what she did, and it will certainly be impossible to forget how she made us feel. REST IN POWER QUEEN NICHELLE.”
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