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Television Preview: Actress respects Rosa Parks' reserve as well as her strength

Friday, February 22, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

We tend to think of her as a quiet, unassuming woman who took a stand, and in CBS's "The Rosa Parks Story" (9 p.m. Sunday), that's the way she's portrayed. But she's also a woman of strong-as-steel conviction.


WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS.


As played by actress Angela Bassett, Parks is no wallflower. Her dress was conservative, but where she saw injustice, she railed against it in her own quietly determined, humble way.

"If anyone was a very reasonable and calm and reserved individual, it was Mrs. Parks," Bassett said in a phone interview last week. "To jazz her story up, people would have gone running and screaming into the streets. We stayed pretty close to the story and were able to do it successfully because people maybe don't know that much about her life, the influences that helped to shape the individual that she was."

To that end, the film shows the importance of Parks' upbringing and later the role her husband played in her life. But Bassett said not everything is explained, and she was fine with that.

"In preparing to do the role, I realized that as unselfish as she was, she is a private person," Bassett said. "Some things you are not able to find out about her and it wasn't really important in the whole scheme of things."

Bassett said she was never able to reconcile Parks' love of children with the fact she never had children of her own, but she said, "The mystery of that should be fine with everyone."

Bassett, who also was executive producer for the new TV movie, didn't speak to Parks before filming (she said Parks is "a frail 89 years old"), but she did meet her in 1994 while sharing a dais at an event in Atlanta.

"She's very giving, a very kind and sweet individual," Bassett said. "I was so in awe of meeting her."

She was most impressed by Parks' humility.

"She always thought she didn't do much," Bassett said. "It was monumental, but in her estimation it was the least she could do."

Bassett said Parks' stand truly made a difference.

"I'm so proud of her and so grateful to her for the sacrifices she had, what she gave to black Americans, to the world," she said. "She's probably unaware of how important she was to the world and what an inspirational note it rang out beyond Montgomery."

Unlike many American TV movies that go to Canada to film, "Rosa Parks" not only stayed in the United States, it was filmed in Montgomery, Ala.

"Canada, with the exchange rate, is hard to beat, but not impossible," Bassett said. "Montgomery gave a lot for us to be there. The energy and rhythm of the people are different. The air is different, the sensibilities are different. Canada was the place slaves from the South ran to. They didn't have the history of Southern America."

That made the ability to shoot in Montgomery more important.

"To be able to stand in the spot where Mrs. Parks stood before she got on that bus just gave me ... I don't know if I can express it," Bassett said. "There was just a sense of pride and empowerment in knowing this is where it began, this is where a great deal of my freedom began."

"Rosa Parks" marks Bassett's second time producing and starring in a TV movie. ("Ruby's Bucket of Blood" was the first.)

"It's a lot easier for me to get a producing credit in TV than in feature films," she said. "In the feature film world I still am, as many actors are, the hired hand. It's a rarefied world. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, they're able to produce and star. That's not my world.

"But in television, because I have been the lead in features and I have name and face recognition, it's easier for me to go to the smaller screen on television and get a picture made and to also produce it."

Bassett said she hopes "Rosa Parks" will serve as a jumping-off point for discussion among parents and children.

"When I was growing up, I learned very little about African-American heroes and heroines of this country," she said. "Things were very different 50 years ago. The journeys we've taken, the advances and opportunities we have today are because of someone like Mrs. Parks. ... It was an ordinary citizen who caused a shift in the way things were. As much as things have changed, there's still some work that needs to be done. We, as ordinary citizens, can be a part of that."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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