Judge Gordon Sullivan would like to go thirty years without visibly aging.
Together they kept the dream alive.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s stature has grown since his death. A number of his goals for Civil Rights were achieved with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Increasingly in his lifetime, King found himself turning to the plight of the poor. No longer focusing exclusively on race and rights, King realized that the poor of all races deserved attention. This led him to vocal and vehement opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam—bringing a subsequent drop in his popularity. This small fact is just one thread in the giant tapestry of the Civil Rights struggle, but it's important to highlight, because we are in constant danger of forgetting that not everyone lives a perfectly privileged life and there are still systemic barriers to equality. One of the ways we can help change this inequality is to realize that movements like those for Civil Rights didn't start and end decades ago, but are ongoing struggles to ensure that everyone is given equality. By focusing on the aftermath of their husbands' assassinations, Betty & Coretta helps put the Civil Rights struggle back into more of the history of the twentieth century.
Though their husbands were (and are) often placed on opposite sides of the Civil Rights movement, Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige, Rock of Ages)—the wife of Malcolm X—and Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett, Malcolm X)—the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.—became friends in the wake of the their husbands' assassinations. Both women continued the struggle and Betty & Coretta documents their three-decade friendship. The film is structured around a voiceover/interview with actress/actress Ruby Dee; she tells the story of the struggle with fictionalized flashbacks filling in narrative details.
The life of Malcolm X is the exception that proves the rule that people don't lead narratively interesting lives. His life just happened to fit a neat, three-act structure: early days as a criminal, a dramatic second act after a jailhouse conversion, and a third act ripe with intrigue as his former associates and the FBI track him down culminating in a heartstopping death in front of a crowd. On the flipside, there is no definitive film of MLK's life precisely because it doesn't fit into such a neat structure.
To get around this problem, most filmmakers choose to focus on a single incident in a subject's life, something they can turn into a three-act moment. Sadly, Betty & Coretta doesn't go for such a technique. Instead, we're treated to a seemingly random sampling of incidents from the lives of these women. Some of the moments are obvious—just after MLK's assassination—while others are character moments that are interesting in themselves but don't build up a consistent picture of these two women or the causes they obviously contributed to in the wake of their husbands' deaths. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that not too much went into aging either of the actresses, so jumps from scene to scene might encompass years but everyone still looks the same. It can get a bit confusing at times even if you're familiar with the history.
On the plus side, Betty & Coretta is perfectly cast. Angela Bassett brings her gravity and experience to the role of Coretta Scott King, the elder of the two figures. Mary J. Blige brings a bit more spunk to her role as the husband of the more fiery of the two Civil Rights leaders. Of course, both are required to do some serious dramatic heavy lifting in the wake of the tragedies that befell their husbands, and it's not as though their later lives were paved with gold. The rest of the cast live up to their roles admirably enough, including interesting turns by Malik Yoba as MLK and Lindsay Owen Pierce as Malcolm X. Ruby Dee deserves special mention as the narrator/subject of the film. She's one of the last remaining icons from those days, and her presence elevates the film significantly.
The film gets a solid DVD release as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer has a clean, bright broadcast-quality to it. Colors are tweaked a bit for the historical scenes, but the contemporary interview with Ruby Dee looks near-perfect. Detail is strong, black levels are consistent, and no serious compression artefacts crop up. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track does a fine job handling dialogue and balancing it with the film's score.
Sadly, the film doesn't have any extras. I'd love to see outtakes from Ruby Dee's narrative at least.
Betty & Coretta does a fine job highlighting some lesser-told stories of the Civil Rights struggle. Though I wish that the filmmakers had chosen to focus on a single incident rather than trying to cover thirty years of friendship, Ruby Dee's excellent narration and remembrances make this film worth watching for those interested in an important strain of American history.
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