Angela Bassett is Hollywood’s go-to actress for critically heralded performances as women with steely backbones and tender hearts — most notably American history-makers Rosa Parks, Tina Turner and Dr. Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X. But after more than 25 years in the business, the Oscar-nominated star had yet to play Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King, who expanded his message of nonviolence and equality to a global audience until her death in 2006.
Bassett finally got her chance.
This month, she stars as Mrs. King opposite Mary J. Blige’s Dr. Shabazz in the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta. The film tells the converging stories of two very different young women united by a commitment to social justice and their struggle to raise their children alone while forging legacies from those of their slain spouses. It’s an angle that the mom of two (with actor husband Courtney B. Vance) particularly appreciates.
“We’ve seen, a number of times, the story of their husbands — and rightly so,” Bassett explains. “They were tremendous influences on our culture and our times and moving America forward. But the women — and people usually say ‘behind these men,’ but I say ‘married to these men,’ because I think they were equally as significant in their own right — very strong. Very forceful. They had their own opinions. It was a different time when they were married, in terms of a woman’s perceived place, but they were towers of thought and activism — and we get to see that.”
Bassett was especially taken with Coretta’s ability to serve the King family’s oft-dangerous mission without ever losing her Southern gentility.
“There’s a saying I grew up with: ‘Don’t take my kindness for weakness,’” Bassett says. “And even after the assassination, I think what is so magnificent about who this woman was is she was able to go further and say more than Martin at the time was even able to say — when anyone would have expected or understood if she would have just raised her children or remarried or gone gently into that good night. But the type of woman that he married — the type of woman that she was — she could not. She would not. She did not.”
The iconic women at the heart of the story weren’t the only ones who drew Bassett to the film. Betty and Coretta also stars venerable actress/activist Ruby Dee, a longtime friend of the Shabazz family who helped establish a fund to support the newly widowed Betty, her four daughters and unborn twin girls.
“To have as our narrator Miss Ruby Dee is just stunning, especially knowing her history of activism and her relationship with Malcolm and Betty,” Bassett says, noting that she decided to pursue acting after hearing a recording of Dee and training herself to mimic the actress’ distinctive inflections.
The film opens with Dee’s semi-fictional character commenting on President Obama’s 2011 dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. “I call her the griot, which in Africa is the storyteller, the person in the community that holds its history, that knows the history and tells the history from generation to generation,” Bassett says. “She leads us into that moment. And then she remembers these women, which leads us back into time where we’re introduced to the families separately. She comes in and out, almost as if she were an observer of both of these families, until their stories intersect. It’s so poignant, because Ruby Dee is the person who holds that history with the Shabazzes at that time.”
As for working so intimately with Blige, Bassett recalls encountering the R&B icon the morning after the singer filmed a re-creation of the horrific — and ultimately fatal — house fire set by Shabazz’s then 12-year-old grandson Malcolm, who hoped to be returned to his mother. “It was beautiful to have scenes with her because she looks so intently into your eyes and listens,” Bassett says. “Plus, she’s so honest, with herself and with her emotions. She came into the makeup trailer that morning and you could just see that it was still on her — why did this have to happen to this woman? Why did she have to perish in this way? Which are questions we all have.”
Because so little information exists about the women’s friendship, other than a few photographs, Bassett says she and Blige relied on their own warm relationship to inform their performances. But, she adds, it was one random YouTube video made by a man hoping to sell the contents of a storage locker abandoned by a Shabazz daughter that offered her the most touching understanding of the depth of the families’ bond.
“He pans across this letter and I notice that at the bottom of it, in this beautiful script, it said ‘Auntie Coretta,’” Bassett recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, I love that!’ Because there is a scene where Coretta comes to see Betty and one of the daughters is there. And when you think of women of that time and of that era — even with my own children today — you have to add a handle of respect. And I had just seen that she had written that letter to one of the daughters and she signed it ‘Auntie Coretta.’”
With that insight in mind, Bassett petitioned director Yves Simoneau to allow her and the actress playing the younger woman to incorporate that endearment into the scene.
“It says so much about the relationship and level of intimacy between these families,” Bassett sighs. “Just in those two words.”
Betty and Coretta premieres Feb. 2 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.
Photo credits: Jan Thijs/Lifetime