The sisterhood forged between Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott-King, widows of two the most pivotal and controversial African-American leaders of the 20th century, was one that inspired bittersweet awe, nostalgia and pride in the hearts of Black America. We have often imagined the monumental “what ifs” and “if onlys” of a powerful alliance between Dr. Martin L.King, Jr. and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, formerly known as Malcolm X, but we have rarely examined the friendship between Dr. Shabazz and Mrs. King.
Lifetime’s “Betty and Coretta” attempts to portray their dynamic friendship through the feminist lens of independent womanhood, separate from the looming shadows of their husbands. And it is there, tragically, where the movie not only fails to fulfill its great potential, but further perpetuates the patriotic fallacy that there is more value in Dr. King’s legacy than that of Malcolm X.
It was too blatant not to notice.
On one hand, there is Malik Yoba, throwing himself into the role of MLK with nuance and conviction; and the magnificent Angela Bassett, who so became Coretta Scott-King, that in my near-sightedness, there were moments when it seemed as if I were watching the late activist on screen and not an extraordinarily gifted actress. Conversely, an awkward Mary J. Blige plods clumsily through her paces as Betty Shabazz and Lindsay Owen Pierre, in all his dimpled adorableness, plays Malcolm X as if in a PBS after-school special.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting Golden Globe and Oscar-worthy performances to be wrung from a Lifetime special, but it was obvious that more consideration was taken with Martin and Coretta, than that of Malcolm and Betty, in both appearance and content.
And at the heart of that disrespect lies the dialogue.
Let’s be very clear: Malcolm X does not need anyone to apologize on his behalf.
This movie positioned itself as inviting the world into previously barricaded recesses of the fiery leader’s life, but instead sought to re-image him in a way more palatable for a white-washed nation that doesn’t take too kindly to fearless Black men.