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

To Tell the Truth is a long-running TV show in which a panel of celebrities is presented with three contestants who all claim to be the same person with an unusual occupation or experience. The panel grills each of them and must decide which two are imposters and which one is telling the truth about their identity.

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

But the fourth panelist, entertainer Nipsey Russell, who is Black, said he would have to disqualify himself because he marched with Parks in Selma, adding: “Miss Rosa Parks is 10-foot tall, she’s a legend and a hero in the democracy of the United States, not just among Black people.”

It is a redemptive moment amid the profanity of a civil rights hero being paraded like a curiosity for the cameras. The sequence makes for a memorable opening to The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, the first documentary feature about Parks, streaming on Peacock from Wednesday.

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

This one action is what she is known for in countless school textbooks and even an episode of the BBC’s science fiction series Doctor Who. 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, the 96-minute documentary contends, demonstrating her activism was sweeping and expansive. It predated the bus incident, spanned decades and was inextricably bound with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Black politicians in Washington.

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

Co-director Johanna Hamilton adds via Zoom from London: “It epitomises the fact that there aren’t more varied in-depth interviews with her. She says interviewers only tended to ask her about that one incident on the bus in 1955 and nothing else and she got pigeonholed. She got stuck in time.

“She’s unrecognised in so many ways when in fact she’s a Zelig, she’s always there, she’s hidden in plain sight. You just have to pan the camera over and she’s on the edge of frame during the Selma to Montgomery march with MLK and everybody in that famous image but you very often don’t see her because she’s over 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 its land, she once recalled, and as a small child she had to hide from the Ku Klux Klan to avoid being killed.

Francis Gourrier, a historian, tells the documentary: “The early 20th century, this is the period that is often referred to as the nadir, the low point in African American history. Some people even argue that it’s a period worse than slavery.”

By the age of six, Parks realised that she was not free. She would sit up all night with her grandfather, who kept a gun close by to defend against the Klan. She once said: “My grandfather was the one who instilled in my mother that you don’t put up with bad treatment from anybody. It was passed down almost in our genes.”

It was manifest in Parks. She wrote in one letter: “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’” Her great nephew, Lonnie McCauley, says in the film: “We’ve got to understand it about this woman that she was a soldier from birth, that she was going to fight you.”

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

Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks in 1965. Photograph: 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 accused of the racist attack – that proved a catalyst for Parks and many others.

In Montgomery on 1 December that year, 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 daily examples of racial segregation and had become a theatre of defiance.

Hamilton, 51, says: “Because she had been so politically involved she knew that it was a consistent theme and that women primarily, but men too, were being thrown off buses all over the country.

“In Montgomery alone there was a former veteran who’d been shot after refusing to give up his seat and being thrown off the bus and police were called. She knew all of those things. That was the courage that it took. As she says in her own words, she had no idea what was going to happen to her as she waited for the police to arrive.

Parks was duly arrested. She wrote later: I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it any more. 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 didn’t resist.”

Her courageous action triggered a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 supreme court decision banning segregation on public transport.

Richen, 50, comments: “It was a victory. It was almost a year that they boycotted the buses, organised transportation to get them to and from work – again, women were at the forefront of this. It got national attention. It launched Dr King because he had just come to Dexter Baptist Church [in Montgomery]. It launched the movement in a lot of ways.

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

Both Parks and her husband lost their jobs and were in “desperate straits” 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 might have been very different had Parks been a man. The civil rights movement was not immune to male chauvinism. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, she was acknowledged but denied a speaking part. (Daisy Bates was the only woman who spoke during the official programme.)

Reverend JoAnn Watson, a former member of Detroit city council, tells the film makers: “There’s so much patriarchy built into the movement like it’s built into so many institutions. Women raise most of the money, do most of the organising, but when you go back and check the record, those who’ve been labelled presidents or directors or the leaders or the grand poobah largely have been men while the women have done the work. And mother Parks, she was doing the work.”

Richen comments: “I’m sure we both knew this before but seeing a figure like Rosa Parks and getting in the weeds around what happened to her just crystallised the patriarchal nature of the civil rights movement.

“It’s patriarchy that still goes on today: who’s in power, who has control and controls the narrative. Things are a bit better, especially with our our young women leaders that we see in BLM [Black Lives Matter] and other movements, but it was the patriarchy of the time.”

Hamilton adds: “She was a paradox in that she didn’t have a large ego. She wasn’t out there pushing herself forward. With these interviews, if somebody didn’t ask her anything beyond the ’55 boycott, she didn’t necessarily volunteer it either. She again too easily fulfils the quiet, meek role, even though she wasn’t.”

Parks joined US Congressman John Conyers’ office 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 Chisholm’s presidential run. She was awarded 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. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX Shutterstock

What would she make of America today? Richen suggests: “She always was dissatisfied with where we were in making progress for freedom but she always kept the fight and the struggle going and alive. If you can imagine being little and seeing the KKK try to terrorise your house, and seeing the full breadth of what the Black freedom struggle has been in this country, she knows that it’s a continuing fight. We can in some ways take inspiration from that.”

Parks died aged 92 at her home in Detroit in October 2005, three years shy of witnessing the election of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. She became the first woman to lie in honour in the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington. In 2019 her personal collection of writings, reflections and memorabilia went on public display at the Library of Congress.

As the years pass, she seems to loom ever larger. The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, which has executive producers including Soledad O’Brien, contains interviews with academics and activists such as Bryan Stevenson, Patrisse Cullors and Ericka Huggins, as well as personal stories from her family.

Hamilton comments: “It’s very easy to eulogise her or see her as this self-sacrificing mother of the movement, the role that women very often get put into. Probably every schoolchild on the planet could name her and they’d learn about her for five minutes, but it was insane to us that there hadn’t been a film about her full life which was so rich.

“Hopefully we can expand the narrative and give her a different place to stand and know her for different reasons. The bus obviously is paramount but she did so much more. Our goal was to remove her from the distant past and that very simplified pedestal that she’s been put on. It’s rare and thrilling to be able to excavate an icon and discover somebody even better.”

This article was amended on 20 and 21 October 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Rosa Parks lived to see the election of Barack Obama. A Selma march picture was replaced because it showed a marcher who was not Parks.

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