Picard’s Hanelle Culpepper on Breaking the Barriers, Doing the Job – Deadline

Editor’s Note: Hanelle Culpepper received a NAACP Image Award nomination earlier this month for her work as pilot director for CBS All Access’ Star Trek: Picard, which made her the first black female director and the first female director to launch a movie or series in the Star Trek universe. The veteran television pilot, who directed three episodes of Picard‘s Season 1, wrote a column for Deadline on his personal and professional take on the industry and the challenges of equality.

Two years ago, around this time, the pre-pandemic and pre-BLM summer, I got the call. Alex Kurtzman loved my vision and entrusted me with guiding the return of a beloved hero – Captain Picard. Today, I am honored to be nominated for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Drama Series for the Star Trek: Picard pilot. When I got the job, I didn’t know I was the first black female director and the first female director to launch a Star Trek movie or series. Why? It never crossed my mind; I was too busy thinking about work.

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Yet race and gender still make the headlines, and I’m torn about that. I never sought to be seen as a black director, but rather as a director who just happens to be a black woman. People ask me all the time what it’s like to be a black director. I’m not sure how to answer this – it’s not like I have anything to compare. Are they asking white directors what it’s like to be them? I work hard, I try to evoke and improve the vision of the script, make the most of the actors, frame interesting and unique shots, keep the pace and do all of that while doing my days. This is what all directors strive to accomplish.

Aesthetically I like to do everything from cinematic action – superhero shows like The Flash, Supergirl and Gotham – to all kinds of diverse human stories that don’t necessarily have anything to do with my race or gender, like Sorry for your loss, NOS4A2, counterpart and my new pilot Kung Fu. I am grateful to Alex Kurtzman for seeing in my work a balance between a strong visual style and an attention to intimate and emotional human moments, which were both so important to Picard, that he felt comfortable letting me take the reins.

Nichelle Nichols in “Star Trek”

As the Star Trek previous series, diversity and inclusiveness were important to me and the producers. In fact, the NAACP Image Awards are a fitting place to honor the Star Trek universe, as the franchise has addressed issues of diversity and representation for over half a century.

Before creating STar Trek, Gene Roddenberry was the creator of an NBC military base drama called The lieutenant. In it, he tried to portray society and its contemporary struggles realistically, including an episode in which two soldiers – a black soldier played by Don Marshall and a Caucasian soldier played by Dennis Hopper – engaged in a altercation fueled by racism. A young Nichelle Nichols played Marshall’s girlfriend in one of his first roles.

The Pentagon, which had helped the show, refused to support the episode and NBC pulled it off the air, canceling the show soon after. Legend has it that a frustrated Roddenberry placed his next series in space in the distant future, at least in part, so he could continue to tell stories about contemporary societal issues, including race struggles, in a more allegorical way that would challenge the audience while avoiding controversy and the restrictions had made the stories more literal. The Star Trek universe was born.

… The current awareness of portrayal in front of and behind the camera has increased both the appetite for black stories and the opportunities for black female directors; Shonda, Ava, Issa – we know these creatives by their first names!

Playing Lieutenant Uhura in the original series and subsequent films, Nichols was one of the first black actresses to star in a drama series on prime-time television. When she decided to leave the show after the first season for other professional pursuits, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced her to stay in the role, declaring her “part of the story”. The character ultimately inspired generations of young black children to dream of becoming astronauts, including the first black astronaut Mae Jemison.

We continued to see each other onscreen decades later when Avery Brooks directed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and today, as Sonequa Martin-Green directs Star Trek: Discovery. Plus, there are the many black characters we love like Anthony Montgomery from Star Trek: Enterprise, Tim Russ from Star Trek: Voyager, Cirroc Lofton from 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.

Star Trek Universe’s commitment to diversity and representation is more than a commitment to showcase black characters. Whatever the trends, Star Trek the shows and films also contain characters from Asian, Hispanic and other under-represented communities; Star Trek: Discovery Currently features a prominent gay relationship among its storylines.

I am proud to be part of this tradition and this commitment. More importantly, the current awareness of portrayal in front of and behind the camera has increased both the appetite for black stories and the opportunities for black directors and writers in the industry; Shonda, Ava, Issa – we know these creatives by their first names!

There has been a lot of progress on the TV side and hopefully we’ll see more on the features side. We all know some sobering statistics and if you don’t, google them. Recent announcements that the next installments of big budget franchises Captain Marvel and tomb Raider would be directed by black female directors was exciting and encouraging news for female directors like me who work in this space. When you are constantly confronted with statistics, their successes make you keep fighting. And so, until true parity is achieved, race and gender will and should be in the headlines because it inspires other black women to pursue directing and for those of us who do. already, to continue.

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