TORONTO – Their husbands are legends but it was the widows of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King who made sure their legacy would endure, says Mary J. Blige, star of the new Lifetime movie “Betty & Coretta.”
The R&B superstar, who also serves as executive producer, says Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King haven’t been given the credit they deserve for championing civil rights issues long after their famous husbands were each assassinated.
“Would (Martin Luther King) have a holiday if Coretta didn’t go forward with it? Would Malcolm be as well-known as he is and as important if Betty didn’t constantly remind people that after he came from Mecca he was a beautiful man and fighting for the same thing that Martin was fighting for?” Blige says in a recent conference call from New York.
“No, he probably wouldn’t be heard of in a positive way. It was very significant what they did, very important.”
“Betty & Coretta” traces the tentative friendship that emerged following the deaths of the legendary black leaders, putting the spotlight on two women who carried on the fight for racial equality while struggling to raise their children as single mothers.
Blige stars as Shabazz, portraying her as a feisty woman who at times clashed with her husband over a desire to work outside the home and help support their growing family.
Angela Bassett co-stars as Coretta Scott King, revealing her as the one who instigated a decades-long friendship with Shabazz after Malcolm X’s shooting death Feb. 21, 1965.
Blige admits it was intimidating to share scenes with the venerable Bassett, who notably played Shabazz more than 20 years ago in Spike Lee’s 1992 feature “Malcolm X.”
Nevertheless, she says she tried to channel that nervous energy into her performance.
“I was trying to make sure that I didn’t do anything that would disrespect the characters or this person that lived on the earth and that was very important,” says Blige, whose other roles have included appearances in Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” “30 Rock” and “Entourage.”
“You know when you’re playing a fiction role you could have fun with it but I had to be specific and I had to follow every single thing that this woman was.”
While Blige has amassed a handful of small roles in film and TV over the years, this is by far her most ambitious foray into TV.
Blige says that when her business partner suggested they produce the project, which was shot in Montreal, it came with the suggestion she star.
“To play such a huge part and to play number one it was scary, of course, but I guess it was for Betty, you know Betty Shabazz. To play her was an honour so I didn’t mind working hard to become someone so powerful and so strong and important to the world,” she says.
Blige says she met King briefly when she attended Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball, a three-day celebration of 25 inspiring African-American women including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks, Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Alice Walker.
And two weeks ago, she met Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Shabazz’s six daughters.
“I was in a restaurant doing an interview for Vibe Magazine and she just happened to come into the restaurant just out of nowhere, it was so weird,” she says.
“(She) got up from her table and she said, ‘You’re playing my mom.'”
Blige says they spoke for a very long time.
“She spoke about how regal her mother was and how she wished she got a chance to speak to me before the film and (how) she has a lot of information for me. She’s been sending me pictures of their lives – of her and Malcolm and Betty – ever since I saw her that day,” says Blige.
“Real positive, beautiful like her mom.”
Blige says the film offers long-overdue credit to these women, who not only carried the mantle of their husbands but championed gender equality, too.
“Just like a lot of women that are involved with powerful men they never get a chance to speak because the men are so powerful. And they never get a chance to speak from their perspective what their lives are and what was going on to get those men where they are,” says Blige.
“But they’re getting it now and more films like this should probably be made about (Medgar Evers widow) Myrlie Evers and people like that so people can understand and be educated about the women.”
“Betty & Coretta” airs Saturday on Lifetime.