Given the preponderance of documentaries that now employ dramatic recreations, it’s not surprising TV movies would begin to return the favor, using documentary techniques to help frame stories and putty over gaps. The result, “Betty & Coretta,” is an earnest Lifetime production about the two famous civil rights widows, timed to kick off its Black History Month efforts, but which proves somewhat stilted dramatically in its stolid, dutiful presentation of the movement’s history. Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett are fine in the title roles, but the movie ultimately feels more episodic than cohesive.
Part of that has to do with a device used to connect the two key players, featuring Ruby Dee as a “witness” filling in details about their lives. While it’s always nice to see Dee onscreen, the conceit of essentially having an oncamera narrator (occasionally augmented by documentary footage) dilutes the impact of the drama.
Another issue involves the relationship between Coretta Scott King (Bassett) and Betty Shabazz (Blige), the widows of Martin Luther King Jr. (Malik Yoba) and Malcolm X (Lindsay Owen Pierre), who are brought together in the aftermath of their husbands’ deaths in the 1960s. While the press notes speak of an “unbreakable lifelong bond,” their interaction and shared scenes within the movie are relatively limited, first meeting after the men (who each play only a sparing role) have been assassinated and connecting just intermittently thereafter.
For all that, it is interesting and timely to see what these two extraordinary women accomplished in carrying on their husbands’ work and activism, from Coretta lobbying for the King holiday — and dealing with hurtful revelations about her husband’s infidelity — to Betty’s teaching and insistence that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan played a role in her husband’s death. There’s also the tragic impact of those events on Shabazz’s daughter, who witnessed her father’s murder.
“Betty & Coretta” is the first of three Saturday movies in February (the others being “Twist of Faith” and “Pastor Brown”) that explore African-American history, and Lifetime deserves credit for the initiative.
Ultimately, though, despite the bond King and Shabazz shared in their grief and resilience, bringing the two into a single movie feels strained, and the project probably would have been stronger had it chosen to focus squarely on one or the other — trading in its “&” for an “or.”