Famous for its history of diversity, ‘Star Trek’ gets its first black female director

TV vet Hanelle Culpepper directed the pilot for new series ‘Star Trek: Picard’

By Paul Wachter

Hanelle Culpepper, the first African American woman to direct an episode of a Star Trek series, grew up about as culturally distant from Hollywood as, well, Earth is from Mr. Spock’s home planet of Vulcan. As a child in Troy, Alabama, Culpepper didn’t know any professional actors, directors, or producers. But even from a young age, huddled around the television with her family and visiting the local movie theater, she felt a tug toward the screen.

“At first, I thought I wanted to be an actor, because that’s who you saw on the screen,” she said. “But later my parents told me, ‘You realize you were always writing plays and putting them on with your siblings and telling them what to do.’ ”

We were sitting in an office at CBS’ massive Studio Center in Los Angeles, a couple of weeks before the Jan. 23 debut of a new series, Star Trek: Picard, which stars the septuagenarian Sir Patrick Stewart, reprising his popular role from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though Culpepper, 49, is a veteran television director and has directed several feature films, this is her first pilot — a show’s first episode.

“In television, the goal is to do pilots because you get to establish the tone of the whole show,” said Culpepper, who’s the first woman to direct a Star Trek pilot. (The Star Trek cast member alum with the most Star Trek director credits is LeVar Burton, who played Geordi La Forge on The Next Generation.)

Diversity has always been a hallmark of the 53-year-old Star Trek franchise — much more so than its cinematic rival, Star Wars. “They’re all white,” said Carl Sagan in 1978, critiquing the first Star Wars movie on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “Not even the other colors represented on the earth are present.”

And while Star Trek’s main stars — William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock — were also white, the diverse supporting cast included George Takei, of Japanese American descent, as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and African American Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Nyota Uhura. “Even Spock was a stand-in for a lot of ostracized communities,” said Mark Altman, a producer and author of The Fifty-Year Mission, a Star Trek oral history.

Such diversity was a rarity for 1960s television, and it continued through later iterations of the franchise. Avery Brooks had a lead role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which ran from 1993 to 1999. On the still-running Star Trek: Discovery, episodes of which Culpepper has directed, the protagonist, a science specialist, is portrayed by African American actor and fellow Alabama native Sonequa Martin-Green. On Star Trek: Picard, Michelle Hurd plays a brilliant, haunted former Starfleet colleague of Picard’s.

“When I first got the job, I had a flashback to my youth,” said Hurd, who is 53. “I’m biracial. My father’s black and my mother’s white.” Hurd’s late father, Hugh Hurd, was an actor, and “made a conscious effort to show us shows in which we could see ourselves on screen,” Hurd said. “Star Trek was the one show we watched all together as a family.”

Culpepper had a similar experience growing up. “I don’t know if I consciously said, ‘Wow, look at how diverse this show is,’ ” Culpepper said of her time watching reruns of the original series as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation as a child. “But I’m sure there was something about the diversity that hit me subconsciously and that’s why I connected with the show so much and became a Trekkie.”

Culpepper’s father was a lineman for a telephone company in Birmingham and became one of the first African American executives at the company. Culpepper’s mother was a homemaker for much of her childhood and later worked for a local bank and the municipal government. The family loved movies and television. “It’s how we bonded with my dad, going to see movies,” she said. She vividly remembers being at a Birmingham theater to see the The Wiz, the Sidney Lumet-directed take on The Wizard of Oz starring Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and a young Michael Jackson. “It was great to see black people on screen,” she said. “I remember it was so noisy that they had to flash a sign up on the screen asking everyone to be quiet.”

As a senior at Indian Springs School, a private high school outside of Birmingham, Culpepper directed her first play, George Kaufman’s one-act comedy, If Men Played Cards As Women Do. It was a defining moment for Culpepper. “I loved the whole process — the casting, the finding a script, working with the actors, and the thrill of watching it with the audience,” she said. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Still, directing seemed impractical as a career choice, and Culpepper hedged her bets. Lake Forest College, near Chicago, offered her a scholarship. She studied economics, was active in college theater, and interned at a Chicago advertising agency. She thought she’d like to direct commercials one day. But when the University of California, Riverside offered her a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in economics, she accepted. “I was playing it safe,” she said.

Only a few weeks into classes, Culpepper realized she had made a mistake. She reached out to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where she also had been accepted for a master’s program in communication, and the school allowed her to enroll for the spring semester. She took film classes and interned at Sony, where she met and married her husband, Jeff Meier, now a programming executive at the company.

If career arcs suchas directors Spike Lee’s or Quentin Tarantino’s appear meteoric, Culpepper’s years in Hollywood are more reflective of the slow, bumpy path to success that’s more common for working directors. After finishing her master’s degree, she worked as an assistant to a couple of established directors and then for the Sundance Institute. “At Sundance, I was inspired by the film makers I saw who weren’t waiting for Hollywood but were just making films,” she said. Culpepper used her savings to buy a camera, switched to working part time, and wrote and directed a short film, The Wedding Dress, which got her into the prestigious American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women.

Afterward, she directed several low-budget horror-thriller features and was selected by NBC’s diversity program. That gave her the opportunity to “shadow direct” — essentially a glorified, often unpaid, internship to a director — on established television shows. Culpepper’s big break came when she was offered to direct an episode of Parenthood and then 90210, both of which aired in 2012, 20 years after she first arrived in Los Angeles.

Culpepper, who now makes a comfortable living directing for television, said she hopes her experience with Star Trek: Picard — she directed the first three of 10 episodes, and a second season already has been green-lighted — will lead to new pilot opportunities. She also plans to direct more features.

It’s also an important moment for the Star Trek franchise, which has struggled in recent years, lagging far behind, in both revenue and cultural weight, the cinematic confections of Star Wars and the ever-expanding Marvel universe.

A clue on the recent Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time tournament reminded viewers of the original show’s significance, particularly for African American Trekkies: “When she said she was leaving Star Trek, MLK asked her to stay, saying, ‘Through you, we see ourselves and what can be.’ ” The answer, of course, was “Who is Nichelle Nichols?”

Nichols, now 87 and retired from the Trekkie circuit, said Martin Luther King Jr., persuaded her not to leave the show for Broadway, saying Star Trek was the only show he allowed his children to watch and that, according to her autobiography, she was the only African American on TV in a role worth having.

It’s difficult to imagine Star Trek regaining the cultural impact it had back then. While Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon is the lead writer and showrunner for Picard, it’s telling that the new show, as well as Star Trek: Discovery, air on CBS All Access, a streaming service, rather than on the network’s prime-time platform.

The first three episodes show Culpepper’s deft camerawork, with sun-drenched, lingering shots of retired Starfleet Adm. Picard’s vineyard and seamless computer-generated imagery. The story line involves a nefarious Romulan plot and synthetic twins with ties to the much-loved artificial-intelligence character, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Even as it creates new narratives, the show also is nostalgic. And while “one can’t overstate the impact of the post-racial, meritocratic themes that Star Trek introduced in the 1960s,” said Altman, “there’s a risk that Star Trek to some can appear to be Pollyannish and out of step with today’s society that’s more cynical.” The dystopian racial politics on display in HBO’s The Watchmen, for example, may strike viewers as more in tune with the zeitgeist.

Still, Star Trek: Discovery is CBS All Access’ most popular show, and Culpepper believes Picard can resonate with a new generation of fans. “Hopefully,” she said, “the world will love it.”

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