Rosa Parks: New documentary sheds light on a misunderstood figure | Documentary films

Jo Tell the Truth is a long-running TV show in which a celebrity panel is featured with three contestants who all claim to be the same person with unusual work experience. The panel grills each of them and must decide which are imposters and which is telling the truth about their identity.

In 1980, three bespectacled African-American women appeared on the show, each declaring, “My name is Rosa Parks.” Only one of the three voting panelists correctly identified her – today their thoughts seem demeaning and trivial.

But the fourth panelist, artist Nipsey Russell, who is black, said he should disqualify himself because he walked with Parks in Selma, adding: “Miss Rosa Parks is 10ft tall, she’s a legend and a heroine in democracy in the United States, not just among black people.

It’s a redeeming moment amid the profanity of a civil rights hero who parades as a curiosity for the cameras. The sequence serves as a memorable opening for The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, the first feature-length documentary about Parks, which airs on Peacock from Wednesday.

Based on a biography by Jeanne Theoharis, the film is a response to popular culture’s reductive habit of framing one person’s life and legacy in a single title – in the case of Parks, the silent seamstress who refused to give way on a crowded bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, one winter evening in 1955.

This action is what it is known for in countless textbooks and even an episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who science fiction series. After her death in 2005, The New York Times called her “the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement.”

But there was nothing accidental about it, claims the 96-minute documentary, demonstrating his such broad and expansive activism. It predated the bus incident, spanned decades, and was inextricably linked to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and black politicians in Washington.

Speaking from Brooklyn, New York, co-director Yoruba Richen observes the opening clip of To Tell the Truth: “It says a lot about her legacy and what people know and don’t know about her that she appears on this show where everyone knows her name but no one could actually visually recognize her where she is economically she probably did it for the money and that’s something we explore in the movie – his economic precariousness for a large part of his life.

Co-director Johanna Hamilton adds via Zoom from London: “It illustrates that there aren’t more varied in-depth interviews with her. She says investigators tended to only ask her about that incident on the bus in 1955 and nothing else and she was typecast. She froze in time.

“She’s unrecognized in many ways when in fact she’s a Zelig, she’s still there, she’s hidden in plain sight. You just pan the camera and she’s at the edge of the frame during the Selma to Montgomery walk with MLK and everyone in that famous picture, but a lot of times you don’t see her because she’s here.

Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913, and grew up under Jim Crow segregation in the Deep South. Her family was driven off their land, she once recalled, and as a small child she had to hide from the Ku Klux Klan to avoid being killed.

Francis Gourrier, historian, says in the documentary: “The beginning of the 20th century is the period that is often called the nadir, the low point of African-American history. Some people even claim that it was a worse time than slavery.

At the age of six, Parks realized she was not free. She would sit all night with her grandfather, who kept a gun nearby to defend against the Klan. She once said, “My grandfather is the one who instilled in my mother that you can’t stand bad treatment from anyone. It was passed down almost in our genes.

This was evident in Parks. She wrote in a letter: “I would rather be lynched than live to be abused and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it’.” Her great-nephew, Lonnie McCauley, says in the film: “We have to understand from this woman that she was a soldier by birth, that she was going to fight you.

As an adult, was an activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She married Raymond Parks, a politically active barber, and helped him organize the defense of nine Scottsboro boys who were falsely accused of raping a white woman in Alabama.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in 1965. Photography: Bettmann Archive

But it was the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, in Mississippi in August 1955 – and the acquittal of those charged with the racist attack – that was a catalyst for Parks and many others. others.

In Montgomery on December 1, she disobeyed a law requiring black passengers to give up seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Public transport was one of the most visceral everyday examples of racial segregation and had become a theater of defiance.

Hamilton, 51, says: ‘Because she had been so politically involved, she knew it was a recurring theme and mainly women, but also men, were kicked off buses all over the country.

“In Montgomery alone there was a veteran who was shot after he refused to give up his seat and was thrown from the bus and the police were called. She knew all these things. It was the courage it took. As she says in her own words, she had no idea what was going to happen to her while waiting for the police to arrive.

Parks was duly arrested. She would later write: I had been pushed around all my life and I felt at that moment that I couldn’t take it anymore. When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around? He said he didn’t know. ” The law is the law. You are under arrest’. I did not resist.

His courageous action sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court ruling banning segregation on public transportation.

Richen, 50, comments: “It was a victory. They had been boycotting buses for almost a year, organizing transport to and from work – again, women were on the front line. It captured national attention. He started Dr King because he had just arrived at Dexter Baptist Church [in Montgomery]. He started the movement in many ways.

“But the personal reaction to her was very intense and we often don’t talk about it with our leaders who we look up to and now praise and think it was, ‘Well they did it and then the racism took over. end. It was physical threats, violent threats from the white community. The black community also didn’t want to be associated with her in many ways as a troublemaker.

Both Parks and her husband lost their jobs and were in “desperate circumstances” financially, Richen adds. Eventually they moved to Detroit where she had family who could take care of them.

Rosa Parks in 1955.
Rosa Parks in 1955. Photograph: Gene Herrick/AP

The treatment could have been very different if Parks had been a man. The civil rights movement was not immune to machismo. During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, she was recognized but was denied a speaking role. (Daisy Bates was the only woman who spoke during the official program.)

The Reverend JoAnn Watson, a former Detroit City Councilwoman, told the filmmakers, “There is so much patriarchy embedded in the movement as it is embedded in so many institutions. Women collect most of the money, do most of the organizing, but when you go back and check the record, those who have been labeled presidents or directors or leaders or the big poobah have largely been men while the women did the work. And Mom Parks, she did the work.

Richen comments, “I’m sure we both knew this before, but seeing a figure like Rosa Parks and meddling in what happened to her crystallized the patriarchal nature of the civil rights movement.

“It’s the patriarchy that lives on today: who’s in power, who’s in control, and who controls the narrative. Things are going a little better, especially with our young female leaders that we see in BLM [Black Lives Matter] and other movements, but that was the patriarchy of the time.

Hamilton adds: “She was a paradox in that she didn’t have a big ego. She wasn’t there pushing herself forward. With these interviews, if anyone didn’t ask her for anything beyond the 1955 boycott, she didn’t necessarily either. She fills the calm and gentle role too easily again, even though she wasn’t.

Parks joined the office of U.S. Congressman John Conyers and worked on his congressional staff from 1965 to 1988. She supported Shirley Chisholm’s successful bid to become the first black woman elected to Congress, as well as the presidential race of Chisholm. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 1996.

Bill Clinton and Rosa Parks in 1996.
Bill Clinton and Rosa Parks in 1996. Photography: Sipa Press/REX Shutterstock

What would she do with America today? Richen suggests, “She was always dissatisfied with the state of our progress for freedom, but she always kept the fight and struggle going and alive. If you can imagine being small and seeing the KKK trying to terrorize your home, and seeing the full scale of the black freedom struggle in this country, she knows it’s an ongoing fight. In some ways we can learn from it.

Parks died at the age of 92 at her home in Detroit in October 2005, three years before attending the election of the first black American president, Barack Obama. She became the first woman to lie in honor of the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington. In 2019, his personal collection of writings, reflections, and memories was put on public display at the Library of Congress.

Over the years, it seems to be growing. The Rebellious Life of Ms. Rosa Parks, which has executive producers including Soledad O’Brien, contains interviews with scholars and activists such as Bryan Stevenson, Patrisse Cullors and Ericka Huggins, as well as personal stories from her family.

Hamilton comments: “It is very easy to praise her or see her as this self-sacrificing mother of the movement, the role in which women are very often put. Probably every school kid on the planet could name her and learn about her for five minutes, but it was crazy to us that there wasn’t a movie about her full life that was so rich.

“Hopefully we can expand the narrative and give her a different place to stand and get to know her for different reasons. The bus is obviously essential but she did so much more. Our goal was to take it out of the distant past and out of this very simplified pedestal that it was put on. It’s rare and exciting to be able to unearth an icon and discover someone even better.

This article was last updated October 20-21, 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Parks had lived to see Barack Obama’s election. A walk photo of Selma was replaced because it showed a walker who was not Rosa Parks.

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