TV Review: “The Rosa Parks Story”

The Rosa Parks Story

In 1955, a woman sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her arrest sparked the modern civil rights movement. The Rosa Parks Story (airing on CBS on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT) is a compelling biography of the woman who challenged segregation, and won.

Most Americans have heard of Rosa Parks and her quiet protest on the bus, but her life has never been the focus of a movie before now. The real Rosa Parks assisted in the production and approved the script. This movie shows her from her school years through the turbulent middle part of the ’50s.

Rosa–The Early Years

The focus of The Rosa Parks Story is how she got to that point on the bus in heavily segregated Montgomery almost 50 years ago. The young Rosa (Charde’ Manzy) is first seen on her first day of school at a private school for black girls run by two Quaker women. Her mother, Leona McCauley (Cicely Tyson), instructs her to “Speak up in class if you know the answer.” It is in this environment that the young Rosa begins to stand up for herself and her beliefs.

The time frame shifts rather quickly from the young Rosa to the adult Rosa (Angela Bassett). Bassett is the star of the movie, and for good reason. The adult Rosa is complex woman who is shy, strong and idealistic. Bassett nails the part.

As the story progresses, there are numerous flashbacks to the young Rosa. These work surprisingly well. The scenes are short, and the images are slightly washed out, giving them the look of old footage. The production values throughout the movie are excellent. The quality is enhanced to a great degree by the producers’ decision to shoot on location in Montgomery.

Rosa the Activist

While working as a seamstress, Rosa volunteers as a secretary for the local chapter of the NAACP. The president, E.D. Nixon (Van Coulter), gives her the job of leading a youth group. She encourages the kids to read and stages a small, quiet one-on-one protest over the segregated library system.

Her anger and frustration grow when she attempts to register to vote. She’s forced to take a written civics test while white citizens just walk in and apply. These scenes of segregation are hard to imagine in 2002, but they are handled well. The focus is always on Rosa and her reaction to the injustice, rather than a heavy-handed portrayal of bigotry.

Rosa and Raymond Parks

The emotional core of The Rosa Parks Story is the relationship between Rosa and Raymond Parks (Peter Francis James). Raymond Parks was a barber and a civil rights activist. They met when she was in high school, and he pursued the shy Rosa until she finally fell in love with him.

Rosa and Raymond were childless, and that gave them time to pursue their social causes. Problems arise when Rosa becomes more involved than her husband thinks is safe. This tension drives the rest of the movie. As Rosa becomes more involved, Raymond becomes more distant and less supportive.

Rosa and the Bus

The last third of the movie involves the incident that made Rosa Parks famous and sparked a bus boycott that lasted over a year. Meetings and rallies ensue, and there is a cameo by Dexter Scott King portraying his father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This, of course, is the center of the story. It was the defining moment of Rosa Parks’ life. However, like everything else in the movie, it is handled evenly. This even-handedness is the main problem with the movie. The characters are non-violent and non-confrontational. The drama isn’t particularly dramatic because the characters aren’t dramatic, and we know how the story ends.

Bottom Line

The Rosa Parks Story is a well-made TV movie. What it lacks is high drama and the emotional tugs that come with a highly charged drama. This problem stems from the fact that Rosa Parks isn’t particularly dramatic. She is strong, quiet and courageous. It’s fitting that the movie is a simple story, well told, about a woman and a time that we should never forget.