Betty and Coretta: A Review

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First there are the bullets that pierce the chests of two men who led movements that championed black liberation. Next there are the funeral caravans through Harlem and Atlanta. Eulogies are given. One of the fallen men is called “a shining black prince.” Songs are sung. A contralto honors the other martyr, her plaintive song filling a church as she chants: “take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

Then there are the widows, veiled in black and trailed by small children. They sit grief-stricken in the front rows of mosques and churches. But History moves on and the women become little more than static images of stoic beauty; a picture in a textbook with a string of words beneath it.

Surely some of us have wondered: What was Coretta Scott King really like? Or what happened to Betty Shabazz after Malcolm X died?

Lifetime’s original film "Betty and Coretta" seeks to answer these questions. Executive produced by Mary J. Blige and her husband Kendu Isaacs, the project features Angela Bassett as Coretta Scott King and Blige as Betty Shabazz. The movie has the feel of a documentary punctuated by dramatic scenes that are woven together with the powerful commentary of actress Ruby Dee, who knew both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

"Betty and Coretta" opens by transporting us to 1965 where Martin Luther King Jr. is incarcerated and Malcolm X (played by Lindsay Owen Pierre) is giving a speech at a local church as Mrs. King walks into the sanctuary. She casts a critical eye on a passionate Malcolm as he pointedly tells his audience: “If they set that dog on you, you shoot it; understand me?”

Next, the viewer is taken to a jail cell where Angela Bassett comforts a forlorn Martin Luther King Jr. played by Malik Yoba. Yoba manages to capture King’s eloquence and rich baritone even in the handful of scenes he is given.  Cast in a role once played by Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, and Denzel Washington, Lindsay Owen Pierre had big shoes to fill in his performance as Malcolm X. For this writer, he fell short of embodying the dignity and dynamism that Malcolm X was known for.

For me Betty Shabazz has been a lyric from a Lauryn Hill song or a tragic story in the back of a magazine. I had hoped that Mary J. Blige would bring this amazing woman to life in a memorable way.  Unfortunately I think Blige’s lack of acting experience prevented her from conveying Dr. Betty Shabazz’s depth and charm. This film is one of the few times a national spotlight has been cast on Shabazz’s legacy. I believe that "Betty & Coretta" represents a missed opportunity to give Betty her due.

Throughout the film, Betty Shabazz’s solidarity with Coretta Scott King unfolds in a hurried and forced way. It’s as if the writers would have us believe that Coretta and Betty sat around quoting their husbands and waxing poetic about their glory days during the time they spent together. I would like to think Coretta and Betty did what any normal pair of friends do: laugh about a joke the preacher told during a service or plan a girl’s trip for the weekend to get away from it all.

Perhaps the most natural scene of the entire film (and my favorite) is when Coretta and Betty are shoe-shopping in New York City. 

Betty urges Coretta to buy a pair of leopard print pumps saying: “come on, they’re sexy!” In the same scene Betty goes on to say: “I’ll never be able to accessorize as well as you; and [your] hair is always perfect.” 

“Well it’s all about the rollers,” Coretta responds sassily. 

Personally, I would have liked to have seen more pared down moments like these, where we get to experience the fullness of who these women were, beyond their grief or their support of their husbands' causes.

Angela Bassett’s portrayal of Coretta Scott King wasn’t terrible; however, considering Ms. Bassett’s talent, I believe that her performance could have been much more powerful. And that sentiment encapsulates my general feeling about Lifetime’s attempt to memorialize the legacies of these two women whose impact on black women was immeasurable. The epic stories of Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King’s lives and friendship deserved to be told in a more artful and complex way that probably was beyond the capacity of a mere Lifetime movie.

Assita Camara is a writer residing somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. She writes about culture at her blog The Afro-Modernist and crafts prose about culture, herstory, and life at her philosophie. You can follow her tweets about music, poetry, and technology at @assitawrites 

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