The Bond Between Civil Rights’ First Wives

Mary J. Blige and Malik Yoba talk about their new Lifetime film, Betty & Coretta.

Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige in Betty & Coretta (Philippe Bosse/Lifetime)
Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige in Betty & Coretta (Philippe Bosse/Lifetime)

(The Root) — Like most people, Mary J. Blige had some knowledge of Malcolm X but knew very little about his widow, Betty Shabazz.

So after business partner and friend Polly Anthony brought her a movie script about the friendship Shabazz shared with another famous widow — Coretta Scott King — Blige found herself not just portraying the wife of a civil rights icon but also getting schooled in a way that she’d never expected.

“I didn’t know she could dance, first of all, and she loved to do it. And I didn’t know that she was the one … keeping it light and telling the jokes [after their husbands’ assassinations], trying to be up and happy through all the trials,” Blige said in a press conference call that The Root took part in.

Blige, 42, stars alongside Angela Bassett, who plays Coretta Scott King, in Lifetime’s Betty & Coretta, which premieres Feb. 2. Blige and her husband, Kendu Isaacs, are among the project’s co-executive producers. Actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee — who, along with her late husband, actor Ossie Davis, was a very close friend of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and their wives — also stars as a historical witness who narrates the movie. Davis delivered Malcolm X’s 1965 eulogy — a soul-stirring remembrance that he reread at the conclusion of Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X. Bassett, known for biographical portrayals, starred as Shabazz in that movie as well as in Mario Van Peebles 1995 film, Panther.

Starring in Betty & Coretta also proved to be a full-circle experience for Malik Yoba, who portrays Martin Luther King Jr.

“I know [Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s daughters] Attallah and Ilyasah; we grew up with them,” Yoba told The Root. “My mother was friends with Betty, and my father was friends with Malcolm, so that was a bit of a trip, too, being in Montreal and being in the production office and seeing pictures of the house and looking at the driveway where I first learned to pedal a bike as a kid.” Yoba, 45, was raised in a Muslim household and was 6 when he learned to ride his bike at the Shabazz house.

Yoba said it was a treat to portray Dr. King, sharing that the Southern Baptist preacher is a “hero” who inspired his own philanthropic endeavors.

Even though Betty & Coretta isn’t Blige’s first foray into acting (she has guest-starred on TV shows including 30 Rock and last year appeared in the big-screen musical Rock of Ages), the biographical portrayal did require the multi-Grammy winner to do some digging in preparation.

“I went online to YouTube to pull up everything I could on Betty. And then I read some books,” she said. Yoba, like Blige, scoured the Internet and read books to ensure a spot-on performance. He said that his co-star did “a good job” and gave a “believable” performance.

“I thought, for one, it was pretty courageous because she was pretty nervous,” Yoba said.