Two television specials next week capture the dynamics of the eras they investigate with terrific energy and scope: One is a drama ("The Rosa Parks Story"), the other a documentary ("Elizabeth").
The Rosa Parks Story (Feb. 24, CBS, 9-11 p.m.) represents a labor of love for its director, Julie Dash, and star, Angela Bassett. Ms. Parks is widely recognized as the "mother of the modern civil-rights movement," but her story has never been so adequately told on TV until now.
"I had no idea when I first agreed to do the project how much I would learn from the material and how it would change my whole perspective on the civil rights struggle," says Ms. Dash, who's directed a variety of movies for television. "Now, certain things are coming out about how many women were involved in the movement."
Too often history texts are written about the men, director Dash says. Parks would be pushed over to the side, even though she was a catalyst for the civil-rights movement. Dash says she found a personal joy in uncovering the roles of women in the movement.
"Not only was it an honor to be charged with directing this story, I was also able to meet one of my film idols, Miss Angela Bassett, and to work with Miss Cicely Tyson, who has always been like a godmother to me in this industry - she has always watched out for me," Dash says. "She has guided me through the minefields of the industry, but we had never had an opportunity to work together. We had a great time - we worked, we laughed, we collaborated. It was all very good."
We meet the child Rosa as she is taken to a vocational school run by loving white Quaker ladies, who encourage Rosa's budding self-respect. Then, as a young woman, she falls in love with Raymond Parks, a young barber with progressive ideas.
Working as a seamstress in a fine store in December 1955, she refuses one day to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus to a white man. She is tired after a long day's work, and tired after a lifetime of humiliation. Many will be surprised to learn she was seated in "the colored section," making the bus driver's command all the more repugnant.
It is the same bus driver who, years before, had kicked her off the bus for an infraction of his absurd rules. He has her arrested. But she will not give in. This genteel lady is placed in a cell with two prostitutes. By the next morning, she has them praying with her. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the film.
Bassett not only stars in the show, she also produced it. (It's her second producing credit. "Ruby's Bucket of Blood" was the first.) She says she follows her artistic impulses when it comes to deciding on material.
"I chose those two projects because I was interested in the roles and the kind of work I would be able to do as an artist," she says. "I still deal in an artistic way with what sparks my passion. I am still in love with acting - the stage and characters - and its ability to reach and to touch people."
Asked about her own feelings about Parks as a role model, she says, "I am so proud of her and grateful to her for the sacrifice she made for black Americans and for America, indeed for the world. She was probably unaware of what an inspiration she was. That 'no' rang out beyond Montgomery, beyond the Supreme Court, into far places of South Africa and Russia, and all around the world."
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The other highlight this week is Elizabeth (The History Channel, Feb. 26-March 1, 9-10 p.m. nightly), a four-part miniseries meant to introduce the History Channel's new offspring, History International. One can only hope it can keep up with the promise that "Elizabeth" offers.
The documentary is written and hosted by David Starkey, a top English historian whose book "Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne" is as gripping as any historical romance. Based on that book, the documentary sweeps through the childhood of an abandoned girl, a princess who adored her father and never spoke of her executed mother, and on through her 45-year reign. There's not much in the way of reenactments, but some scenes are iconographically stunning.
Dodging court intrigues and betrayals, Elizabeth kept herself free from bad marriages with importunate politicians and built England into a first-rate power. She was the patroness of Shakespeare, and she loved and supported music. She was always loath to chop off heads, but a girl in her position has to keep her own head attached. So Mary Queen of Scots was executed at last, against Elizabeth's own inclination.
It's a fascinating story to Americans, as well as for the English. After all, the state of Virginia is named in honor of her ("The Virgin Queen"), and United States laws are built on English common law - which she helped evolve.
Though Elizabeth sponsored Shakespeare, he once was in danger of her wrath, the documentary points out. It seems his play "Richard II" was taken personally by the queen (in the play, the monarch is removed from the throne and murdered). One of her popular courtiers, Essex, who found himself out of favor, paid Shakespeare's players to perform "Richard II" on the day Essex tried to overthrow Elizabeth's forces. To her credit, and to the everlasting gratitude of theatergoers, Elizabeth punished only Essex - not the Bard.