A Q&A with Jeanne Theoharis
Have you wondered why there has never been a Rosa Parks documentary? It is so long overdue. No need to wonder anymore because it is finally on the way! Peacock’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, the first-ever feature on Parks, is currently in production from Soledad O’Brien’s SO’B Productions. Based on Jeanne Theoharis’s NAACP Image Award-winning biography of the same name, it is slated to have its premiere on the streaming platform this year. In honor of the lifelong activist’s birthday today, Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Theoharis to chat about the production.
Christian Coleman: This project marks the first-ever full-length documentary about Mrs. Parks. Given how many films and documentaries there are about Dr. King and Malcolm X, why do you think it’s taken this long for a documentary to be made about her? She has six decades’ worth of activism to look into.
Jeanne Theoharis: I think people assume that they know her. Even many people who know Rosa Parks wasn’t just a simple seamstress who accidentally walked into history don’t realize how much of her history—the militancy of her early activism in Montgomery, her activism in Detroit, her work in Black Power—is still largely unrecognized. As longtime civil rights activist Julian Bond ruefully said to me when I interviewed him for my book, “I met her numerous times over her lifetime . . . . I just talked to her about innocuous things and never delved deeper . . . . I thought I knew everything to know about her.” I’ve been researching Rosa Parks for over fifteen years, and I’m still surprised at how wide her activities were and how many things she did.
CC: Who got in touch with you about adapting your book? How did you find out the adaptation was happening?
JT: On February 4, 2019, I did a Twitter thread on Rosa Parks’s life of activism. A filmmaker named Johanna Hamilton, who I had met through her film 1971—which covers the activist break-in to the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, that exposed the FBI’s spying on the civil rights and antiwar movements—reached out in admiration. She wondered if a Rosa Parks documentary was already in the works and was surprised when I said no. We had a conversation later that week and then she sprang into action.
Because she was currently based in London, she wanted to bring on a second director and reached out to Yoruba Richen, who was also excited about the project and whose filmmaking expertise was in twentieth-century African American history and politics. She directed The Green Book: Guide to Freedom and more recently How It Feels to Be Free.
The three of us met. Johanna did a long interview with me. And then they started looking for funding. Part of what was exciting was that I had admired both Johanna and Yoruba’s work long before we began the project.
CC: What was your reaction when you found out your book would be the basis of the documentary?
JT: I was excited but a bit incredulous. I didn’t quite believe it would happen. Soledad O’Brien’s production company came onto the project in 2020, which was also thrilling. But I still didn’t quite think it would happen. Even after Peacock funded the project this spring, and we started in earnest, I kept being surprised that this was actually coming together.
One of the coolest things is that they committed to building a team of people of color—from producers to editors to the people filming and composing the score. It’s an incredible team of people working on it. For many people, like me, this feels like a labor of love. As one person involved put it, she feels like she’s walking through the world in a new way having gotten to know Mrs. Parks’s full life of freedom fighting.
CC: How much involvement do you have in the production? How much do you work with Richen and Hamilton?
JT: I am a consulting producer on the film. I have gotten to play a role in who was interviewed, the questions asked, the kinds of places to look for archival materials, and many of the key details in this huge sweep of history—from the 1930s almost to her death in 2005—that is Rosa Parks’s life of activism. I get to attend the weekly team meeting. It’s been really exciting to be part of figuring out how to tell her story in this new medium, and I have learned a ton.
CC: What challenges have come up in telling her story in this medium? How does your text fit in with the interviews of activists and celebrities and Mrs. Parks’s family, video footage, and exclusive audio?
JT: Part of the challenge of the film was one of the issues I faced when writing the book: Rosa Parks was hidden in plain sight in so many events across so many movements. As Dr. Mary Frances Berry puts it in her interview, people “would say stand up Mrs. Parks, wave Mrs. Parks,” and not ask her for her thoughts; they would only interview her about her bus stand and Montgomery in 1955. They wouldn’t delve into the danger and details of her two decades of activism before the boycott and the four decades after. Rosa Parks spent the second half of her life in Detroit fighting the racism of the North and joining a burgeoning Black Power movement. We were committed to telling that story in the film, too.
On top of that, most of us aren’t familiar with what Rosa Parks actually sounded like. So, it required a lot of sleuthing and an amazing archival producer who dug up a lot of footage and images. We get to hear so much of Mrs. Parks’s life in her own words in the film.
CC: What does your book mean to you now that Mrs. Parks’s lifelong activism is finally coming to the screen?
JT: The film is not done yet! But it is such an honor to see it coming into being. And I’m so excited to have another tool to change the way people, and particularly young people, to learn about Rosa Parks. One of the great things about Rosa Parks is that she gets more impressive the more you get behind the myth of her. Her example is so relevant to where we are today in this country and how you push for change over a lifetime.
About Jeanne Theoharis
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of City University of New York and the author or coauthor of numerous books and articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements and the contemporary politics of race in the US. Her books include The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (winner of a 2014 NAACP Image Award) and A More Beautiful and Terrible History (winner of the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize for Nonfiction). Connect with her on Twitter (@JeanneTheoharis).