MOVIE OF THE WEEK: THE REBELLIOUS LIFE OF MRS. ROSA PARKS

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Humble. Unassuming. Spiritual. Saint-like. All of these words have been used to describe Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement icon whose decision to stay seated on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955 led to a boycott and, ultimately, to a court decision finding bus segregation unconstitutional. And there’s no doubt that she was all of those things. But as Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen’s documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks makes abundantly clear, she was also a proud radical and lifelong activist.

Parks was no meek, downtrodden old woman who stayed seated because she was tired and unable to stand. She was only 42, and she was tired, but her fatigue had more to do with the weight of the unfairness of the Jim Crow South, the horrific lynching death of Emmett Till earlier that same year, and the constant abuse and discrimination Black Americans faced every day than it did with a long day of work. Put simply, she had just had enough. And so she was arrested — and became a rallying point for the local NAACP, which announced the infamous Montgomery bus boycott.

But this was far from Parks’ first experience with activism: She originally joined the NAACP in 1943 and became a secretary for her chapter, helping them investigate cases like that of Recy Taylor, who was gang-raped by a group of White men in 1944. As Hamilton and Richen’s many interviewees, from family members to fellow civil rights veterans, confirm, Parks was passionate about justice, equal rights, and making change. Her quiet demeanor helped her fly under the radar — and, frankly, made her an easier symbol for many White people to support than, say, someone like Malcolm X. The film’s opening scene, a clip from a 1980 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth, in which two out of three White contestants can’t correctly identify the real Parks despite heaping praise upon her for her “gentleness” and “defiance,” is cringeworthy but, alas, not remotely surprising. (The fourth contestant, Nipsey Russell, looking exhausted by the whole affair, disqualifies himself because he’s met Parks before — but doesn’t miss the chance to call out her importance to Black people and the American democracy.)

As it traces Parks’ life from beginning to end, culminating in huge memorials in multiple U.S. cities after her death in 2005, Hamilton and Richen’s film tells the story not just of one strong, dedicated, tireless woman, but of nearly a century’s worth of hard-won progress toward equality. Coming at a time when it’s sometimes difficult to believe that anything has changed from the 1960s to the present at all, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks‘ message of the impact that hard work and “good trouble” can have is especially welcome. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Marilyn Ferdinand There are few people who do not know who Mrs. Rosa Parks was. The civil rights activist’s defining act of rebellion against segregation—refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus line to a white man—has seeped into the American consciousness and even been immortalized in bronze in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall. What directors Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen do in their documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rose Parks is show that Mrs. Parks was so much more than one moment. Mrs. Parks was a rebel from her earliest days who nursed a hatred for white people that only abated when she met white people at what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center who were as dedicated as she was to equal rights for all Americans. We learn of her longtime involvement with the NAACP, the sexism she experienced within the movement, her admiration for Malcolm X and belief that armed defense was an appropriate response to racial violence, and her loving and supportive marriage to barber Raymond Parks, who was her partner in the struggle. Her abilities as a seamstress and organizer were second to none, and through interviews and film clips (including her appearance on the TV game show “What’s My Line”), we are brought into her life in a way that helps us understand who the real Rosa Parks was.

Loren King Nearly everyone who’s been to school might think they know Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon whose courageous action spurred a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system and led to a 1956 supreme court decision banning segregation on public transport. But think again. Parks was more; much more. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, an engrossing and revealing documentary directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and based on the biography by Jeanne Theoharis, provides a nuanced look at Park’s lifelong championing of racial justice and progressive action. She grew up under Jim Crow segregation in the deep south and from an early age was a tireless advocate for human rights at great personal cost including death threats and physical violence. Even after her heroic activism with the bus boycott, Parks endured sexism even from the civil rights movement leaders. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, she was acknowledged but not allowed to speak. This essential film tells us so much that we didn’t know about Parks’s deeply rooted fighting spirit. She deserves to be heralded for all that she did and for all that she was.

Leslie Combemale Rosa Parks was not a woman who just got tired on that bus in 1955. She was a lifelong activist who had tirelessly worked to better the experience for Black Americans her whole life. What The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks shows is just how important to the civil rights movement she really was. In fact, that one act, which led to the incredibly successful Montgomery bus boycott, was only one of the many ways in which she showed courage and affected change. Co-directors Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen particularly consider the challenge of her being both Black and a woman, and how that limited her from getting the credits she so well deserved. This film is a must for anyone who cares about US history.

Jennifer Merin The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a stirring biographical documentary about a civil rights activist whose entire life exemplifies heroism. We all know her name. We know that she sparked the civil rights movement with her refusal to sit in the back of the bus. We know that she was imprisoned for that action. But the life story of Mrs. Parks, who died on October 24, 2005, reveals that she was even greater than that extraordinary moment in history. She was truly a force for the cause of justice, and you will be inspired while getting to know her via co-directors Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton’s well researched and beautifully structured film.

Susan Wloszczyna: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is a long overdue documentary that digs deep into the life of the civil rights activist from Montgomery, Alabama and is based on a best-selling biography. The film starts off with a clip of the quiz show To Tell the Truth in which the celebrity panel overlooks the real Rosa Parks. Read full review.

Sandie Angulo Chen: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is an eye-opening documentary about the life of the legendary civil rights activist. Although even young American schoolchildren learn about Parks’ decision to stay seated on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in December of 1955 — thus launching the Montgomery bus boycott — the rest of Parks’ life in activism isn’t as well known. Directors Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton smartly blend interviews with scholars, civil rights activists, and Parks’ surviving relatives and friends with archival footage and recitations of Parks’ own words narrated by actress Lisa Gay Hamilton. The result is an in-depth and well-rounded look at someone whose legacy as the mother of the civil rights movement has often been oversimplified.

Liz Whittemore Acutely aware of her race since birth, Rosa Parks was so much more than a brave woman who refused to move from her seat on the front of a bus in 1955. Lisagay Hamilton narrates the film with Rosa Parks’ words, alongside sit-down interviews with historians, family members, archival footage, photographs, television appearances, and audio recordings. What we learn about Mrs. Parks’ lifelong legacy of fighting for equality could fill volumes. The history of voter suppression, sprawling segregation, and sexual violence against Black women, including her involvement in the rape case of Mrs. Recy Taylor, are all chronicled in her writings through the years. Her relentless activism and fight against the patriarchy is a glorious example of a woman who lived the injustice and had enough. Her fiery spirit lives on in each new generation of women who won’t take no for an answer.

Cate Marquis What an eye-opener is the documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. We all know Rosa Parks, the quiet, dignified woman who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in the segregated South, but it turns out that is only a small part of her story. This fine documentary reveals the deeper story of this remarkable woman, who was far more radical than we knew and who dealt with not just racism but patriarchy in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks toiled quietly for most of her life in the Civil Right movement, before and after that one day, yet she did not get the credit she deserved for her decades-long work. Like the recent documentary on Chicano rights activist Dolores Huerta, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks gives us the unjustly untold story of a woman we only thought we knew.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

Directors: Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen

Release Date: October 21, 2022

Running Time: 96 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen (documentary)

Distribution Company: Peacock

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).