The Rosa Parks Story
Director: Julie Dash. TV Movie. Cast: Angela Bassett, Peter Francis James, Cicely Tyson, Dexter Scott King, Nick LaTour, Tonea Stewart, Von Coulter, Chardé Manzy, Stephanie Astalos-Jones. Screenplay: Paris Qualles.

Director Julie Dash, a sort of pioneer in her own right, was the first African-American female director ever to have a film in commercial circulation in the United States. That movie, Daughters of the Dust, was a prizewinner at Sundance in 1991 and an art-house hit in 1992, so it's an especial loss that cinema audiences have been waiting for an entire decade since for Dash's second feature. We're still waiting—after several stints directing TV movies for the BET and Lifetime channels as well as industrial/political videos, Dash keeps to the small screen for The Rosa Parks Story. Star Angela Bassett, clearly among the most underused major talents of the last decade of film, has an Executive Producer credit, implying that without her own dollars being poured into the project, we would never have seen it.

So we have two charismatic, prominent, but underexposed black women joining forces and (limited) funds to tell a story about a third, the woman whose name we all know—and without whose activism figures like Dash and Bassett may well have failed to emerge—but about whom precious little information is actually circulated in the culture. Most people are still surprised to hear that Rosa Parks was anything more than an unsuspecting private citizen at the moment she defied the Jim Crow legislation regulating public transportation. The Rosa Parks Story is serviceable, then, as a basic primer about Parks' background, her work with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations previous to the bus standoff, and the tensions generated within her family by her increasing appetite for and commitments to the civic liberation of her people.

But, as scripted by Paris Qualles (and no doubt as edited by CBS), the film is indeed a basic primer, anecdotal where it could be complex, leaping among time periods (Rosa as schoolgirl, as old woman, as teenager, as middle-aged shopworker, as schoolgirl again) in ways that have less to do with dialectical history than with disruptive dramaturgy. We're also frequently irritated by the film's taking several minutes to communicate what a single shot had already made clear. There is a poignant moment when Rosa, exiting the department store where she works, sees a shoe salesman tracing the feet of a black child, because his soles are not allowed to touch the standard measuring equipment used for the white children. The subtle eloquence of this shot, however, is spoiled by a laborious flashback when young Rosa herself must trace her feet for the same reason, and be educated by white classmates as to the reason for this ordeal—therefore making explicit and implausibly verbal what is so insidiously clear but unvoiced in the department store scene.

Predictably, the performance by Angela Bassett is the movie's coup de grāce, especially when this fierce actress is called on to give rare demonstrations of timidity and ambivalence as Rosa makes her earliest steps into civil rights activism, and must accept in the process that her family may be endangered as a result. One marvels that she can still put over an impersonation of Parks in her high-school years—not as seamlessly as she rendered the Anna Mae-to-Tina evolution in What's Love Got to Do with It, but impressive in its own right as this performance is filmed a full ten years later. If Bassett's artistry still comes through in this picture, Dash's signature gifts—stunning shot composition, clever reprisals and revisionist images of history (see not only Daughters but her 1983 short film Illusions)—are not really encouraged by the small screen, especially without the artistic license afforded by an HBO or a Showtime. One is grateful to see Rosa Parks' story as rendered not just by African-Americans, but by African-American women, and if my own lucky personal encounter with Parks in 1995 was any indication (yes, a real lifetime high moment for me!), this is exactly as she would have wanted it. But the film itself is hardly the equal of the credentials of its creators; it suffices because certain figures and periods in our national history are still so gigantically underrepresented and misunderstood that even a tepid dramatic vehicle has implicit claims on our interest and our consciousness. Grade: C+

Emmy Awards:
Best Actress (TV Movie/Miniseries): Angela Bassett

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