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Rosa Parks documentary reveals the strong, courageous fighter behind the famous icon


You know Rosa Parks as the civil rights icon who sparked the yearlong Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama by refusing to give up her seat to a white man in 1955.

You can picture her face, somber and bespectacled at age 42 in her famous mug shot, gentle and smiling as a older woman revered as a civil rights icon.

But what else do you know about her? “Pause for a moment. What does her voice sound like? What do her political ideas sound like?” asks historian Jeanne Theoharis.

If you fail that pop quiz, so will many others. For too long, the story of Parks has been oversimplified in the public mind. Her image tends to be frozen in time as a mild-mannered seamstress too weary to move from her bus seat on that day in 1955. 

In reality, Parks, who died in 2005 at 92, was a committed activist who spent her life fighting racism and segregation, first in the Jim Crow South and then in the supposedly more enlightened North, where she found the same sort of inequality in housing, criminal justice and police brutality and so on after moving to Detroit.

A new documentary based on Theoharis’ bestselling, NAACP Award-winning 2013 biography of Parks is poised to spread that message to a wide audience by showing just how radical and extensive her efforts were. 

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” was scheduled to have its world premiere Thursday at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. Later this year, it will air on Peacock, NBC's streaming site.

Thanks to the Tribeca at Home virtual screening program, viewers here and across the country can see the film online starting at 6 p.m. Saturday and running through June 26. Tickets are available now at the film festival's site. 

Through archival footage, new interviews and especially Parks' own writings (which are read by actress Lisa Gay Hamilton) and clips of her talking, the documentary depicts Parks in all of her complexity and courage.

“Rosa Parks, in many, many ways, was really a complete badass. She was just incredibly tough,” says veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien, an executive producer of the film. 

“I think a lot of people in Detroit actually know this story better than people outside of Detroit because they know all the work that she did in civil rights. And so this narrative of a little old lady who just one day was too tired to get out of her seat is just not accurate. She was tired of being pushed around is really what she was tired of.”

Filmmakers Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen, who share a devotion to setting the record straight, teamed up for the project. Hamilton is known for documentaries like "1971," about eight citizens who broke into an FBI office to expose an illegal spying program. Richen directed 2019's "The Green Book: Guide to Freedom" and 2020's "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show."

Hamilton traces the idea for the film to a 2019 Twitter thread by Theoharis, who each year marks Parks' birthday on Feb. 4 by posting little-known facts about her. After reading “fact after amazing fact,” Hamilton asked herself why she didn’t know about any of them. She reached out to Richen, who also was “shocked that I didn’t know the full depth of (Parks') story and of her work both before and after the boycott.”

After finding out from Theoharis that no one else was adapting her biography for the screen, the directors contacted Soledad O'Brien Productions, which came on board with O'Brien's enthusiastic support.

"It was insane to me that Rosa Parks hadn’t had a full documentary done on her. I didn’t believe it actually," says O'Brien, who hosts the syndicated public affairs show "Matter of Fact" and focuses her company on untold stories tied to issues of race, class and poverty.

Filming began in August 2021 and took place in Detroit and several other locations. Among those interviewed with Motor City ties were Parks' niece Rhea McCauley, her great-nephew Lonnie McCauley (who was expected to be at the Tribeca festival premiere), former Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson and Ed Vaughn, owner of the first Black-owned bookstore in the city.

As Theoharis, who served as a consulting producer on the film,  wrote last year in the New York Times, "much of what people learn about Mrs. Parks is narrow, distorted or just plain wrong."

A 2017 documentary, "The Rape of Recy Taylor," brought some attention to Parks' role as an NAACP activist assigned to look into the case of a young Black woman kidnapped and sexually assaulted by six white men in Alabama. It was inspired by metro Detroit historian Danielle McGuire's book "At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power."

More: Detroit movie event exposes a brutal chapter in history of American racism

But that is just one example of Parks' activism, which stretched back to the 1930s (when she and her husband, Raymond Parks, worked to help the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931) and continued through her becoming a staffer for U.S. Rep. John Conyers in 1965 and working for his Detroit office until her retirement in 1988.

The condensed version of her role in the bus boycott obscures the facts, including that she wasn't the first Black woman to refuse to give up her bus seat. (Most notably, Claudette Colvin was arrested at age 15 for doing the the same thing nine months before Parks.) Even the famous photos of Parks being fingerprinted and her mug shot, often attributed to the 1955 bus incident, are really from her 1956 arrest for her role as one of the organizers of the boycott, notes Theoharis.

Why was Parks in many ways reduced to a symbol? That's a question with many answers, starting with the patriarchal biases of the media, and male-led social protests. Richen points to the lack of understanding of "the full complexity of Black women in the (civil rights) movement, who are the backbone of the movement from the very beginning." 

The portrait of Parks as a well-respected, middle-age woman made for a compelling narrative for the civil rights movement. It also was more palatable to white Americans who might not have embraced her real-life status as a force within her local NAACP chapter.

And Parks herself was a bit of a paradox, “so incredibly courageous and also quiet,” as Hamilton puts it. While Parks was frustrated that journalists mostly asked her over and over about that day on the bus, she wouldn’t volunteer information.

Theoharis describes an interview with Parks done around 1965 in the Motor City. "They sort of ask some question about Detroit, and she says, ‘I can’t say we like it better here.’ And then the interviewer clearly gets nervous, or that’s not what they want to hear, and so they don’t ask a follow-up."

When Parks moved to Detroit with her husband in 1957, they had both lost their jobs because of the bus boycott. But in the North, the couple struggled financially until her hiring by Conyers. "She never, in her whole entire life, owns her own house," says Theoharis. And she saw the same injustice, only it wasn't as formalized as in the South. 

"It's almost like Detroit is seen as the epilogue: ‘And then she lived happily ever after.’ The actual Rosa Parks spent more than half her life fighting the racism of Detroit, of the North … taking on school segregation in Detroit, housing segregation in Detroit," says Theoharis.

"Some of the stuff she does with Conyers in the early years are things around getting more public housing, equalizing municipal services, working against job discrimination. She’s die-hard union. So this is a much more modern Rosa Parks. This is a Rosa Parks that speaks to us and where we are today in this country."

It's also a Rosa Parks who, as Theoharis' biography details, didn't shy away from controversial territory in her own politics. She considered Malcolm X her hero, was against the Vietnam War and visited a Black Panther Party school in Oakland, California.

The lack of awareness of Parks' full legacy echoes the current attempts by some states to restrict schools from teaching about racism. "I think we’re in a very strange time where people don’t want to have honest conversations about the true history of the United States of America," says O'Brien. "The watered-down, comfortable version is what people prefer to be talking about. I find it obviously very troubling.”

Hamilton and Richen say they plan to bring the documentary to Detroit for an event at a future date. "At this point, I think we’re just running to finish the film for Tribeca," Hamilton said a few days before the premiere.

On Wednesday, the director of the Traverse City Film Festival told the Traverse City news site the Ticker that it plans to include "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" in its summer 2022 lineup. 

Richen says that making the documentary only increased her admiration for Parks.

"Getting to know her through this film just deepened my respect and my understanding of the risks that she took and the sacrifices that she made in terms of being a fighter for freedom ... and how she was in it for the long haul.”

Says Theoharis, "I think what makes this story even better is that (Parks) gets even more interesting, more courageous" the more you find out about her.

"It’s rare that you get to demytholoigize something and the actual thing is even better. Fundamentally, she’s even more courageous."

Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]

'The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks'

Virtual screenings will be available starting at 6 p.m. Saturday and running through June 26 from the Tribeca Film Festival's Tribeca at Home program

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased now at the Tribeca Film Festival website, TribecaFilm.com.