This weekend Lifetime aired the first of three new films premiering on the network this February in honor of Black History Month. The movie, titled Betty & Coretta, starred Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige as Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, the wives of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, respectively. This is a good example of a story that’s worth telling being told by the wrong people.
The film’s title women led lives which certainly deserve to be explored on film. I think Angela Bassett said it best in one of the behind-the-scenes promos during the movie: these women are known as the “wives of” iconic men in history, but they were much more than that, which was seen after their husbands’ assassinations. They both continued their husbands’ causes through activism. For instance, it was Mrs. King’s efforts which made the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday finally become official. There’s no denying these were important women in history both alongside and apart from their famous husbands. Their stories should be told.
Unfortunately, Lifetime, the network known for embellished true stories and melodramatic thrillers, isn’t the right team to bring this story to life. As entertained as I usually am by the scandalous, outrageous Lifetime movies I watch each week, and as much as I might respect their legitimate successes (for instance Steel Magnolias), the network has neither the production value nor the knack for storytelling to do justice to a story like this, and it showed.
Angela Bassett gave a fine performance for what she was given to work with. Her reaction to her husband’s assassination was subtle and well-acted, but unfortunately she’s not given much opportunity to shine through the rest of the film. And Lifetime can tell me a million times in their promos that Mary J. Blige is a Grammy nominee, but that doesn’t tell me anything about her acting chops, which were lacking. I can say that she was lightyears better than Lindsay Lohan in Liz & Dick (still not over it), but that’s not saying much. Her performance lacked nuance, but she’s a singer, so that can’t be expected of her — except that she was cast in a movie.
I was actually most impressed by Malik Yoba as Martin Luther King, Jr. He bore a convincing resemblance to King, and he turned in a powerful performance in the few scenes he was in. Unfortunately, because most of the movie occurs after the two men are assassinated, I didn’t get to see much of him.
Even the film’s talented actors aren’t really given a chance to shine, however, because the storytelling is so weak. As with Liz & Dick, this movie, which spans more than thirty years, seems to take a “checklist” approach to conveying the events. You get the feeling that someone mapped out a timeline of major events in the title women’s lives, and then wrote scene by scene accordingly, without any kind of natural transitions. Because of this, the character development, particularly the relationship between King and Shabazz, suffers. The TV spots and publicity for the film made it out to be a powerful story of female bonds. But the two women are actually not even shown together that often, and when they are, they’re either doing stereotypical female activities like shoe-shopping, or they’re talking about their husbands. I’m no expert on how close the women were in real life, but for a movie which makes itself out to be about a friendship, it lacked the appropriate pathos and storytelling cues to convey that message.
And can someone please get Lifetime a bigger makeup budget?! First it’s Liz & Dick‘s embarrassing aging techniques, and now Blige and Bassett look exactly the same age in the 1960s as they do in the 1990s. There may have been a couple of faint drawn-on wrinkles, but nothing convincing.
It’s a shame this story couldn’t have been told in a theatrical film from a skilled, experienced filmmaker. The subjects certainly deserve to be spotlighted, and I applaud Lifetime for acknowledging that, but it just wasn’t what it should have been to do justice to this worthy true story.