As we begin the month designated to honor African American history, which began when famed African American historian Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, it is appropriate to focus on several significant contributions of major African American film makers. Made one decade after her uniquely original Daughters of the Dust, The Rosa Parks Story was director Julie Dash’s monumental biography of the life of civil rights icon Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, the woman who defied the Jim Crow laws that demanded people of color to give up their seats on public buses to whites. Famed Oscar nominated actress Angela Bassett portrayed Ms. Parks in this 2002 hidden gem that was originally shown on television.
Written by screenwriter Paris Qualles, this screen narrative takes a rather straight forward chronological look at the life of Rosa Parks, with periodic flashbacks to Rosa’s young memories of lessons from her grandpa, school experiences and a horrifying lynching. Rosa attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls in the 1920s—“a separate but equal” school system as set by the confused 1896 segregationist Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson. When a young girl one day stands up in class complaining that all they will ever do is become maids and nannies for white folks, Rosa proudly exclaims, “I was raised to believe I could do whatever I wanted, if I put my mind to it”.
The tale follows Rosa through her teen courtship years when she falls in love with local barber Raymond Parks. Parks is a rather vocal spokesman for equality and supports the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys. He also feels the efforts of the NAACP are too feeble and lack the vigor for real social change. Rosa’s passions eventually lead her to joining a local chapter of the NAACP where she becomes chapter secretary and leads after school youth meetings. And in December 1955, she refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a public bus and is arrested. This incident inspires a citywide bus boycott and connects Rosa to a young minister Dr. Martin Luther King.
The acting in this film is consistently passionate and heartfelt. Bassett delivers an outstanding rendition of this historic legend capturing the dedication and conviction of a woman who was so much more than just a symbol of the civil rights struggle for African Americans. Screen legend Cicely Tyson plays Rosa mother Leona Edwards McCauley. Television star Peter Francis James is a convincing Raymond Parks and Dexter King plays his late father in a special scene. Dash concludes her film with historical footage of a White House celebration of Rosa Parks being honored by President Clinton in 1999. She truly had come a long way.