They say that “behind every great man is a great woman,” and this couldn’t be more accurate when it comes to the lives of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz, who fostered a lifelong friendship after their husbands Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated during the Civil Rights Movement.
Just in time for Black History Month, the story of these two remarkable women comes together this Saturday in Lifetime’s Betty and Coretta (8/7c), starring Mary J. Blige as Betty and Angela Bassett as Coretta.
A veteran of portraying so many strong, real-life African-American female women in film, Mrs. Bassett was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her latest work.
What made you want to take on the role of Coretta Scott King?
How could I not? She’s a modern day iconic heroine. She was called to public service and she did just that—willingly and sacrificially until her last days.
Was there any part of her character that you were surprised to discover while studying her?
I was surprised that she rebuffed MLK’s advances initially, but once they were a couple, she believed that their purpose to serve was a calling from God, and wherever that led them, she was willing to go.
For those who don't know King and Betty Shabazz's history, how did the two forge a friendship, considering their husbands had opposing approaches to the Civil Rights Movement?
Betty and Coretta stood behind prominent, charismatic civil rights leaders, but when they were both taken away from them, the differences of their husbands methodologies diminished, and they were free to become the sisters they always were—through their shared experiences as mother, widow, activist, human being.
The respect that I have for their lives—their stories, vulnerabilities, strength, and resolve.
Of these women, which do you feel was the most challenging to play?
The most challenging by far to portray was that of Tina Turner. Audiences felt a real fan connection. They knew her music. They had seen her perform. They were in love and protective of their personal memories. That added the extra layer of difficulty and pressure.
What was it like playing opposite Mary J. Blige? Did you give her tips on how to play Shabazz? It was a real treat. We have a mutual regard for each other. I knew this experience was important to and for her. It had to be a great one…for her, for me, and for these two women of our shared history as African Americans.
In light of Rosa Parks' centennial in February and the fact that you portrayed her, what does her legacy mean to you?
Rosa Parks was of the purest personification of strength. She lived a life clothed in meekness and genteel humility. Though she never bore children, her deep love for them made each of us stronger by her example of self-respect and righteous indignation. She remained seated so that all—everywhere—might stand…taller.