ABOVE PHOTO: Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett as Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King in the Lifetime TV film, Betty and Coretta, airing this month.
By Dr. Barbara Reynolds
For those who have longed for Hollywood to bring out of the shadows more African-American heroines and their stories as well as showcase the talents of more black film artists, Lifetime TV’s film Betty and Coretta, airing in celebration of Black History Month, has achieved an historic double-header.
Iconic actress griot Ruby Dee is the narrator, Hip-Hop artist Mary J. Blige crosses over to play Dr. Betty Shabazz and makes her debut as executive producer and Angela Bassett, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed stars who has played history makers Rosa Parks, Tina Turner and Dr. Shabazz, in the Spike Lee movie, Malcolm X is Coretta.
For most, the film will be well-received. It is provocative dramatic entertainment. For others, however, who believe portraits of famous people should adhere to a truthful story line, there are problems and even pain; especially for relatives closest to the two widowed legends. For me, someone who has talked to Mrs. King over a 30-year period, words are put in her character’s mouth that I know Coretta King never said and scenes that never happened.
The film tells the story of the strong evolving friendship between Dr. Shabazz and Coretta King, as they forged ahead to raise the 10 children (Shabazz had six and Coretta had four) left fatherless after the tragic assassinations of their husbands Malcolm X Shabazz and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It shows their courage as they braved the danger from Black anger and White hate and how their commitment to the human rights movement propelled them to leadership in their own right. For the first time in one place their surrogates give voice to whom or what killed their husbands.
During their lives the talents and strengths of both women were obscured by the limelight of their powerful husbands. After the deaths of their husbands, the media often referred to them as “the widows,” as if their individual accomplishments had no merit. Lifetime brought them out of the shadows for a renewed examination, appreciation and recognition of their leadership.
While applauding Lifetime’s efforts for recognizing an important era Ilyasah Shabazz, 50, one of the six daughters of the Shabazzes strongly, emphasizes the film is “fiction.” She says, “My mother was not a weak timid, insecure woman as portrayed. She was regal, compassionate, strong, loving, beautiful, resilient and highly educated. That is why the Delta Sigma Theta sororities named academies all across this country after her so others could be inspired how to turn tragedy into triumph.”
Even what might appear small details to others bothered Shabazz because they obscured deeper meaning. In one scene even the manner of how her mother’s head was covered did not set well. In her book, “Growing Up X,” she detailed why her mother’s refusing to cover her head as expected for a Muslim woman, was a statement stressing her independence, which I believe was as significant as Coretta refusing to pledge to “obey” her husband in her wedding vows in 1953.
“If only Lifetime had consulted us, the sisters, maybe this would be more than fiction,” Shabazz said. “I am not pointing my finger solely at them, but it must be our responsibility to ensure history is properly documented.”
Truth also matters to the King Family, who I know are deeply pained by the inaccuracies. One of the basic objections was how the film suggested that Coretta Scott King accepted the accusations that Dr. Martin L. King was unfaithful to her based on what was supposedly heard on a tape sent by the FBI to the King home and tried to suppress them. This was not the case as Mrs. King and the King Family has said for years.
It has been commonly reported that a tape and a letter were sent by the FBI to the Kings’ home shortly before Dr. King was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964. In taped interviews with me for an upcoming book, Coretta King relived the matter: “I opened the package. There was a letter that suggested since my husband was going to be exposed of some wrongdoing he should commit suicide. When I listened to the tape something was taking place at a social function with people telling dirty jokes. It has nothing to do with my husband having sex, which was reported in the press. I was not bothered by the tape at all.”
In other interviews, she strongly defended her husband’s fidelity, saying, “If there were anything like that I would know. A wife always knows.” Coretta Scott King always felt like, “there will be attempts to assassinate (Dr. King) over and over again….” Why does this movie follow the same story line the FBI constructed in the 1960s although their allegations were never substantiated?
The movie has several other inaccuracies, fabrications or stretches of the truth, such as visits the King children took to the Shabazz house that did not happen. Another Hollywood stretch is a scene showing the tragic death of Dr. Shabazz, resulting from a fire set by young Malcolm Jr. that showed little resemblance to the actual truth. The film showed Dr. Shabazz in the hospital covered in gauze but able to speak to Mrs. Coretta Scott-King at her bedside. According to family members, Dr. Betty Shabazz, suffering from severe third degree burns, did not speak at all.
Mrs. King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice A. King, declined to comment publicly for this article; however, both Ilyasah and Rev. King said their attempts to be involved in the film were rebuffed and they did not see it until it was finished.
Why didn’t Lifetime executives consult with the children of Mrs. King and Dr. Shabazz to ensure the film would be historically accurate especially since the siblings were part of the drama? If drama is also history how much truth do we surrender for entertainment, especially since millions of viewers who have not followed the civil rights movement, will no doubt take this movie as factual.
Michael Feeny, senior vice president, corporate communication for A and E network, verified that the Shabazz and King families were not included in the project until “in post production.” Other A and E officials who did not want to be named said they felt involvement with the families before production would have been too difficult because of the natural inclination for families to protect their legacies. I wonder are the Kennedys similarly disregarded in movies made about their lives.
I was at Jacobi Hospital in New York when Mrs. King visited Dr. Shabazz. I know her death was heartbreaking because she loved her. One a Muslim, the other a Christian; nevertheless they were truly spiritual sisters. That is one truth of which I am certain.