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“The Rosa Parks Story”: Angela Bassett Interview

About an hour into How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Stella (Angela Bassett) and her 20-year-old lover, Winston (Taye Diggs), walk out of a multiplex and run into Stella’s snooty sister Angela (Suzzanne Douglas).

Angela, her husband and another upper-middle-class couple have just seen a picture that befits their station in life, something suitably adult and tasteful, and she’s rhapsodizing about how beautiful it was, how sad, and didn’t Stella ju-ust lo-o-ove it? Actually, Stella tells her, she and Winston were seeing a low-brow comedy playing on another screen. Appalled, her sister asks, “Stella, how could you?”

While people may have asked why Angela made such low-brow (but highly entertaining) fare as How Stella Got Her Groove Back,, no one will be asking that when they see Angela Bassett star as Rosa Parks in CBS’ The Rosa Parks Story, which airs Sunday, February 24.

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The drama explores the experiences in Mrs. Parks’ childhood and early adult life that helped shape her philosophy of “quiet strength” that resulted in her historic moment of peaceful defiance on a segregated bus in 1955. This marks the first time Mrs. Parks has participated in a screen adaptation of her life.

We sat down with the star to hear her views on race and the now legendary Mrs. Parks.

TV movies are sometimes accused of jazzing up the story, taking liberties with it. How true does this script stay to the story?

Angela Bassett: I think it stays pretty close to the story. If anyone was a very reasonable, reserved and calm individual it was Mrs. Parks. So to jazz her up… [Laughs.] I think I would’ve gone running into the streets. I think we’re able to do that successfully because I didn’t know–and perhaps I can speak for others–didn’t know that much about her life, about the influences that shaped the individual that she was.

Did you meet with Mrs. Parks before doing the film?

Bassett: I did meet Mrs. Parks in 1994. We were both on the dais at an event in Atlanta, Ga. for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; we were both getting recognition and awards. And we were seated next to each other. But I didn’t meet her before making this movie, because presently she’s–as a matter of fact her birthday was this past Monday, she’s 89 years old, and she’s a frail 89. She’s not well these days.

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What impressed you upon meeting her that you could draw on to play her?

Bassett: That she’s very giving, very kind, very unselfish and very sweet.

I noticed at the beginning of the movie they flashback to Rosa’s childhood. Can you talk about how her grounding made her the person that she is and led her to taking the action that she did? And is there anything in your background that feels similar?

Bassett: I think so now that you shake up my thoughts on that. I was very close then to my great-grandfather, as Rosa was close to her grandfather. Just a pillar of strength in the community and a strong example of what and who a man should be. I didn’t grow up with my father, I didn’t have that father influence at home. My mother was not a teacher, but she had very strong ideas about us, my sister and I, putting our education first.

I remember specifically when I was young and I had gotten a C on my report card, before I got home I knew she would be upset about that. So I made sure that I had my argument together. That an A was excellent and a B was above average and a C was average and a D was below average–so [it was OK] as long as I stayed right there at the middle. I presented my argument, and she looked me in the eyes and said ‘I don’t have average children.’ And then I was promptly placed on punishment.

But I was really proud of that. It affected me. I remembered that throughout the rest of my growing up and education and pursuing my dreams and desires, going into acting, and, of course, getting through Yale University and on and on and on, that being average, being mediocre was not an option that you should be proud of.

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This the second show you’ve produced for TV, what is TV offering you?

Bassett: It’s easier for me to produce than it is in a feature film. I mean in feature film world I’m very much…a hired hand. It just seems in feature film it’s a rarefied world. It’s a world of Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson–you know they’re able to produce and to star and it’s, that’s not my world. That’s not the world that I’m in. It’s one to aspire to, but that’s not the reality of Hollywood. You hear the words all the time, you know, bankable stars, and open a picture, but in television because I have name and face recognition, then its easier for me to go on the smaller screen on television and get a picture made and also produce it.

Are TV movies a focal point for where you will do more?

Bassett: I chose those two projects because I was interested in the roles and the kind of work I would have to do as an artist. I still deal in a very artistic way of what interests me and marks my passion, and I try to–whether its good or not–am in love with acting and the stage and characters and the ability to reach and to touch people, so that’s where, I guess, that’s where my heart will reside, by and large.

Did you ever think you’d be the person to play Mrs. Parks?

Bassett: No, never. I said to someone when I met Mrs. Parks in 1994 and I was sitting–you know she was sitting to the left of me–I remember it never crossed my mind one day they should do her story and I’d love to play it. I guess I was just so in awe of meeting her and I didn’t have the vision to see down the road that far.

How did you prepare for this role?

Bassett: By reading Parks’ autobiography. Also film footage of her. I was able to just watch her you know watch her over and over again and study her; her rhythms, her cadence, her carriage and it doesn’t help being a stubborn girl myself as well. So I have an awareness of the sensibility of the time, whose rhythms aren’t boring to me.

Express your feelings for Ms. Parks as a role model.

Bassett: I’m so proud of her and grateful to her for the sacrifice of her life that she gave to black America to the world. Probably unaware of of how important she was to the world and what an inspiration and how not know it rang out beyond Montgomery, beyond the supreme court to far places to South Africa, Russia, all around the world. So I’m very grateful for the sacrifice that she made of her life. Really, I don’t think there are words enough to express how thankful we all should be.

What was the process that took you to Montgomery?

Bassett: To be able to stand in the spot where Mrs. Parks stood before she got on that bus gave me a sense of pride and power and empowerment in knowing that this is where it began; this is where a great deal of my freedom began; why I am able to comeback and recreate this as an actor today as a human being in an arena where I can live and love and its because she said “no” in that place, so it was going back and paying homage to that place and being proud of it.

What’s your general sense of TV films and black history month?

Bassett: A lot of people who really fought and struggled so that there would be some recognition of the accomplishments of African Americans in this country, and if it takes a month out of the year I think that it’s a good thing and perhaps we’ll get to a point people can be more tolerant and human where we won’t have to have a month for black history or women’s history or Latino history or on and on and on…

You’ve played strong women. Have you ever wanted to play a vulnerable type of woman?

Bassett: I think all the women have started out very vulnerable but they find their strength in the journey of their life.

Describe your relationship with the director.

Bassett: Julie has strength of character and is willing to stand up for what’s right and tell this woman’s story and tell it as earnestly and honestly as possible in the short amount of time that we have, but she wouldn’t sacrifice the truth of this monumental woman. And she didn’t. She was who I hoped she would be and prayed she would be and that’s exactly who she was. She was a captain of that ship and she sailed it. I’m proud of her; I would work with her again.

Does it make you nervous to play someone who is still alive?

Bassett: Yes. Of course you want to do all the research that you can, but it’s impossible to take a life and the boundaries of an hour and a half, so there is hope there will be understanding about that also. I just try to remain as truthful as possible and so far it has worked out for me.

What cooperation did Mrs. Parks lend?

Bassett: She read the script, and she approved of it, and she was pleased with it. I can only think that in my observance of Mrs. Parks I realize that she was as unselfish as she was as a person giving of herself and she was a private individual. Some things you aren’t able to find out about her, and it wasn’t very important; for example, she loved children so much but never had children of her own, and she never says in her autobiography why that is: was it physical or was it just unfeasible, and I never asked. She also really thought that she didn’t do much. To me it was monumental but in her estimation it was the least she could do.

Comment on African American drama on broadcast TV vs. cable.

Bassett: Being on PBS, it has the ability to reach every household as her action did, so I think it’s very appropriate that it is on network television. I have relatives who don’t have certain cable channels…so I think it’s very appropriate.

I’m the type of individual that I enjoy watching any different cultural lives, and I see the common humanity even though the hair textures are different or the skin tones are varied. I look in the eyes and I see the heart. As long as it’s a human story. I would like to turn on my television and see African American, Hispanic, Asian as well as Caucasian. And I think there are probably more people like me.

What about the Oscars?

Bassett: I think if you’re able to do over the course of your career 20, 30, 50 very wonderful rich characters, you’d rather have that than an Oscar.

Was this the first time Rosa Parks gave approval for her story to be filmed?

Bassett: This is the first time that she’s given her approval for it to be done. If I had not agreed to do it, then they would not have done it. So I guess it was a perfect meeting of the minds.

Was there something you were surprised to learn about Parks?

Bassett: I found out that her grandfather and her husband helped to radicalize her. They were so used to seeing her as a quiet seamstress. She grew up at the knee of her grandfather who held his shotgun waiting for the Klan if they came to cause trouble. He was serious and ready for any confrontation that way, and she grew up with that as her example. The spirit of her grandfather was a big part of her.

What further insight people will learn about Parks’ whole story?

Bassett: I hope they will get jumping off you know a conversation between parents, children. When I was growing up, I learned very, very little about African American heroines. I hope that they’ll get, you’ll realize this occurred not 50 years ago, that things were very different, the victories and the journeys we’ve taken and opportunities that we have today as the cause of someone like Parks and the other ladies and gentlemen who walked in unity 381 days. It was an ordinary citizen that caused a shift. Each of us is an ordinary citizen, as well, so you have some victories as much as things have changed, there’s still some work that needs to be done and we as ordinary citizens can be a part of that.

What’s the difference between big screen and little screen, and which do you prefer?

Bassett: I’m a big screen. You have a lot more time. I’m from the big screen.

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