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 upcoming film “Betty and Coretta” has achieved a historic double-header.
Iconic actress/ griot Ruby Dee is the narrator, hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige
plays Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, and Angela Bassett, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed stars is Coretta Scott King, wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For most viewers, the film will be well-received. It is provocative, dramatic entertainment. But for others, who believe portraits of famous people should adhere to a truthful story line, there are problems, especially for relatives closest to the two widowed legends.
The film tells the story of the strong, evolving friendship between Shabazz and King, as they forge ahead to raise the ten children (Shabazz had six and King had four) left fatherless after the tragic assassinations of their husbands. 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 brings them out of the shadows for a renewed examination, appreciation and recognition of their leadership.
However, though she applauds Lifetime’s efforts for recognizing an important era, Ilyasah Shabazz, 50, one of the six Shabazz daughters, strongly emphasizes the film is “fiction.” She says
“My mother was not a weak, timid, insecure woman as portrayed,” Shabazz said. “She was regal, compassionate, strong, loving, beautiful, resilient and well-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 as small details to others bothered Shabazz as they obscured deeper meaning.
“My mother did not tie a scarf to her face as she was shown wearing in the film,” she said.
In her book, “Growing Up X,” Shabazz 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 King 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. I am not pointing my finger solely at them, but it must be our responsibility to ensure history is properly documented,” Shabazz said.
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 her husband was unfaithful to her based on what was supposedly heard on a tape sent by the FBI to the King home. This was not the case, as the King family has said for years.
It has been commonly reported that a tape and letter was sent by the FBI to the Kings’ home shortly before the civil rights leader was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In taped interviews with me for an upcoming book, Coretta Scott King relived the matter: “I opened the package on January 5, 1965. The letter suggested that since Dr. King 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 that.”
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 didn’t Lifetime executives consult with the children of King and 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? Both Ilyasah Shabazz and the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Kings, said their attempts to be involved in the film were rebuffed, and they did not see it until it was finished.
Michael Feeny, senior vice president for corporate communication at A&E Network, said that the Shabazz and King families were not included in the project until “in post production.” Other A&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.
But important to point out, for the sake of the historical record, the movie has several inaccuracies, fabrications or stretches of the truth, such as visits the King children took to the Shabazz house that did not happen, according to family members.
Another Hollywood embellishment is a scene showing the tragic death of Betty Shabazz, resulting from a fire set by Malcolm X’s grandson, Malcolm Jr., that showed little resemblance to the actual event. The film showed Shabazz in the hospital covered in gauze but able to speak to Coretta Scott King, who was at her bedside. According to family members, Shabazz, suffering from severe third-degree burns, did not speak at all.
I was at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx when King visited Shabazz. I know Shabazz’s death was heartbreaking for King because she loved her. One a Muslim, the other a Christian; nevertheless they were truly spiritual sisters. That is one truth I am certain of.
Reynolds is an ordained minister, a columnist for TheRootDC and the author of six books, including “Out of Hell & Living Well: Healing From the Inside Out.” She is currently working on a biography of Coretta Scott King. She is a former editor and columnist for USA Today.
More from The Root DC