The stories of the wives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Betty and Coretta, debuted on Lifetime this past weekend. Coretta Scott King (wife of Martin) and Betty Shabazz (wife of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz b.k.a. Malcolm X) are known as supporting two of the most powerful figures in American history; women who sacrificed their own ambitions to carry their spouses’ missions forward while remaining unmarried.
But even when Hollywood takes a liking, folks still aren’t happy. By “folks,” I mean the children of the two women.
“My mother was not a weak, timid, insecure woman as portrayed,” said Ilyasah Shabazz, one of six Shabazz daughters. “She was regal, compassionate, strong, loving, beautiful, resilient and well-educated. That is why the Delta Sigma Theta sororities named academies all across this country after her, so others could be inspired how to turn tragedy into triumph.”
When it comes to cinematic adaptations of true stories, a bit of creative license is expected. That’s why the phrase “Based On A True Story” doubles as “All This Ain’t True.” Because African-American movies rarely receive sizable budget offers, many viewers don’t mind looking the other way for some less than accurate scenes. What difference does it make if Malcolm X didn’t really get arrested while getting his hair conked? The spirit of the story still stood.
Criticisms about biographies and the stories told within it are highly slippery and subjective. One person’s distortion could be another person’s truth. Whose truth wins out? If that truth isn’t the most serving to an entertaining plot … does that truth change for profitability?
I’ve heard a lot of good things about the film. Many have expressed their satisfaction with Ruby Dee’s narration (whose presence lends credibility), Angela Bassett’s portrayal of Coretta, and Malik Yoba’s channeling of Martin.
Even still, the families of the two heroines depicted are calling it fiction. More distressingly, they weren’t consulted.
Michael Feeny, senior vice president for corporate communication at A&E Network, said that the Shabazz and King families were not included in the project until “in post production.” Other A&E officials, who did not want to be named, said they felt involvement with the families before production would have been too difficult because of the natural inclination for families to protect their legacies.
Feeny’s explanation is hardly sufficient, considering how many other biographies in history have featured the input of the principle’s children. Were those children not inclined to protect their parents’ legacies, too?
Expecting people to buy into a story this important without getting the co-sign of their closest blood is bold, if not negligent. Looked at another way, the producers are simply following a tried and true method of film biopics: Take the true elephants and sprinkle in some fake ants and maybe a false deer or five.
“Betty and Coretta” is missing the input of the protagonists’ closest living relatives because the producers didn’t reach out to them. This takes away the insider’s appeal and creates room for some make-believe to fill gaps in the script.
So how much truth should we sacrifice for entertainment? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whatever omissions informed the production of the movie, the story rings through.
The lives of these two women are linked by tragedy and a common cross. Their roles as wives serve as affirmation of the mutually dependent man and woman. Beyond the “successful man needing a superwoman supporting him” aphorism, it’s symbolic of the power twosome separated by death, with Isis left to pick up the pieces and move forward.
In the realm of storytelling, truth takes on a deeper meaning. Sometimes, fiction tells the best truth. Sometimes, non-fiction tells better lies.