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.”