Editors note: Hanelle Culpepper received an NAACP Image Award nomination earlier this month for her work directing the pilot for CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Picard, which made her the first Black director and first female director to launch a movie or series in the Star Trek universe. The veteran TV helmer, who directed three episodes of Picard‘s Season 1, has penned a guest column for Deadline about her personal and professional perspective on the industry and the challenges achieving equality.
Two years ago, right about this time, pre-pandemic and pre-BLM summer, I got the call. Alex Kurtzman loved my vision and was entrusting me to guide the return of a beloved hero – Captain Picard. Today, I’m honored to be nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for the Star Trek: Picard pilot. When I got the job, I didn’t realize that I was the first Black director and first woman director to launch any Star Trek movie or series. Why? It never crossed my mind; I was too busy thinking about the work.
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Yet race and gender always take the headlines, and I’m torn on that. I’ve never strived to be considered a Black female director, but rather a director who happens to be Black and female. People ask me all the time what it’s like to be a Black female director. I don’t really know how to answer that – it’s not like I have anything to compare it to. Do they ask white male directors what it’s like to be them? I work hard, try to evoke and enhance the vision of the script, bring the best out of the actors, frame interesting and unique shots, keep the pace going and do all this while making my days. This is what all directors strive to achieve.
Aesthetically, I enjoy directing everything from cinematic action — superhero shows like The Flash, Supergirl and Gotham — to all kinds of diverse human stories that may not necessarily have anything to do with my race or gender, such as Sorry for Your Loss, NOS4A2, Counterpart and my new pilot Kung Fu. I’m thankful Alex Kurtzman saw in my work a balance of strong visual style and attention to intimate, emotional human moments, both of which were so important for Picard, that he felt comfortable having me take the reins.
Like the Star Trek series that came before, diversity and inclusivity were important to me and the producers. In fact, the NAACP Image Awards are an appropriate venue for honoring the Star Trek universe, because the franchise has been speaking to issues of diversity and representation for well over half a century.
Before creating Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry was the creator behind an NBC military base drama called The Lieutenant. In it, he strived to portray society and its contemporary struggles in a realistic way, including an episode in which two soldiers – a Black soldier played by Don Marshall and a Caucasian soldier played by Dennis Hopper – got into a racism-fueled altercation. A young Nichelle Nichols played Marshall’s girlfriend in one of her earliest roles.
The Pentagon, who had been assisting the series, refused to support the episode, and NBC yanked it from the air, canceling the series a short time later. Legend has it that a frustrated Roddenberry set his next series in outer space in the distant future at least in part so that he could continue to tell stories about contemporary societal issues, including racial struggles, in a more allegorical manner that would challenge audiences while avoiding the controversy and restrictions had he made the stories more literal. The Star Trek Universe was born.
…Current awareness of representation in front of and behind the camera has increased both the appetite for Black stories and opportunities for Black women directors; Shonda, Ava, Issa — we know these creatives by their first names!
Playing Lt. Uhura in the original series and subsequent movies, Nichols was one of the first Black female actresses to have a starring drama series role in primetime television. When she decided to leave the show after the first season for other career pursuits, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced her to remain in the role, declaring her “a part of history.” The character ultimately inspired generations of young Black children to dream of becoming astronauts, including the first Black female astronaut Mae Jemison.
We continued to see ourselves on screen decades later when Avery Brooks led Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and today, as Sonequa Martin-Green leads Star Trek: Discovery. Additionally, there are the many supporting Black characters we love like Anthony Montgomery from Star Trek: Enterprise, Tim Russ of Star Trek: Voyager, Cirroc Lofton of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and of course Michael Dorn, Levar Burton and Whoopi Goldberg from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and our new favorite, Michelle Hurd from Picard.
The Star Trek Universe’s commitment to diversity and representation is much more than a commitment to showcasing Black characters. Regardless of trends, Star Trek shows and movies have also contained characters of Asian, Hispanic and other underrepresented communities; Star Trek: Discovery currently features a prominent gay relationship among its storylines.
I’m proud to be a part of this tradition and commitment. Even more importantly, current awareness of representation in front of and behind the camera has increased both the appetite for Black stories and opportunities for Black women directors and writers across the industry; Shonda, Ava, Issa — we know these creatives by their first names!
There has been a lot of progress made on the TV side and hopefully we’ll see more on the feature side. We all know the sobering statistics and if you don’t, Google them. The recent announcements that the next installments of big-budget franchises Captain Marvel and Tomb Raider would be led by Black women directors was exciting news and heartening for directors like me who work in that space. When you are constantly confronted by the stats, their successes energize you to keep striving. And so, until true parity is reached, race and gender will and should be a part of the headline because it inspires other Black women to pursue directing and for those of us already doing it, to keep on keeping on.
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