Blallywood Film Review: Betty and Coretta

by on February 6, 2013

Lifetime is perhaps best known for original films that highlight issues most pertinent to the feminine platform. Films bringing awareness to domestic violence and the struggles of motherhood. I can’t say I’m one to keep up with the latest Lifetime movie but I know enough to know that they are usually dripping with sap, soft, unmotivated, with light plots stretched out to give some semblance of dramatic conflict. The formula doesn’t seem to change much for the sake of Betty and Coretta.

We all know Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott-King as wives of civil rights icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr respectively. But, few know them outside these roles. Formidable women in their own right, the idea of this movie is nothing short of brilliant. The concept of giving a voice and story to these largely unstoried women is fantastic. However, in the hands of Lifetime,  the movie hardly kept my attention.

We open with Ruby Dee, speaking extemporaneously about the Civil Rights movement and reintroducing us to the giants we all learned about in social studies. Dee is one of my favorites, so I may be biased, but she does a masterful job of humanizing these couples and is a saving grace as narrator of this choppy and bland script. She is lively and speaks with clarity and compassion bridging the gap between past and present in a refreshingly familiar way. Assuming she actually knew Shabazz and Scott-King, her anecdotes are a large part of the success of the film, in my opinion.

MLK and Malcom X die early in the film but both actors are memorable in the roles, particularly Lindsay Owen Pierre as Malcolm X. He was careful not to fall into the trap of shallow anger and aggression. He showcases a fatherly warmth and charming sense of humor with his daughters juxtaposed by a firm quality and stern speaking tone in the public setting. It was a nice contrast.

Mary J. Blidge (Shabazz) seems to have trouble embodying the words she is speaking. She seems just a bit uncomfortable and perhaps insecure in this role and it reads in the film. It’s a bit unsettling. She seems to master the larger quality of the Shabazz as far as tone is concerned, but otherwise I couldn’t buy the performance.

Angela Bassett (Scott-King) is in familiar territory. Her wheelhouse is biographical films. Remember Tina Turner? Bassett is right at home and does a lovely job in the role. She adequately quiets her usual histrionics to embody the soft spoken and thoughtful First Lady of Civil Rights. Her maternal approach is full of richness and a vibrant elegance you’d expect from the impeccably dressed and beautiful Coretta Scott-King. She’s a joy to watch. Bassett is always on the money in films like these.

Betty and Coretta has many issues. The most obvious is the script. It’s trite and sounds amateur in areas. It lacks a sharpness and edge this film needs to make the mark it has the potential to make. The film makes a lackadaisical attempt at raising poignant issues about whether Louis Farrakhan had something to do with Malcolm X’s death and rumors of infidelity on the part of MLK. These topics seem to be dropped in with no real effort to smoothly transition such controversial points into the storyline.

The film has a nice sense of pace, though the transitions are a bit confusing, chronologically. It feels like a little too much time passes between scenes towards the end of the film such that the film loses a bit of the build it accomplished in the earlier scenes.

As far as plot is concerned, what’s most interesting is watching these women deal with the loss of their spouses. The love and devotion they demonstrate at the beginning of the film is stunning and to watch them deal with losing the man they’ve invested their entire lives into is heartbreaking. They rebuild and start over in two distinct ways and the torch they are forced to carry in their husbands’ honor is what ultimately forges the friendship. Blige and Bassett are charming in their scenes together, believably enjoying each other’s company and these scenes are the only time the dialogue feels relaxed and natural.

To be honest, the only real fault the film has is script. Without a strong script when you don’t have flawless actors who can make any words sound meaningful (with the exception of Bassett and Dee), you are up the creek without a paddle. Sad story for such a wonderful concept. RIP Betty and Coretta. C-.

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