5 Things You Should Know About Angela Bassett
Angela Bassett plays Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, to Mary J. Blige as Betty Shabbazz, widow of Malcolm X, in the Lifetime movie "Betty & Coretta" premiering Saturday, Feb. 2 at 8 PM and featured throughout Black History Month.
Angela and I first met as students at Yale. Then as now, Bassett is a dynamic combination of elevated and down-to-earth.
#1. Bassett is the first African-American winner of the Best Actress (Musical) Golden Globe. She won for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It." She‘s played historic figures ranging from Rosa Parks to Jackson Family matriarch Katharine, and Betty Shabazz - twice.
"Coretta was a real challenge compared to Betty." Both women possess extraordinary strength of character. "They don't make them like that anymore!"
But Betty was "a relaxed character" and even "a bit of a joker" who chose a more private life. "Coretta was poised as a public figure, pulled together in terms of her presentation."
In the indelible image of Coretta Scott King at Dr. King's funeral Bassett saw "a woman with her child in her arms who has lost her husband but has not lost her sense of purpose."
She felt "called to go on with Dr. King's work because there was so much left to do." The challenge was to find "a balance between her warmth and formality."
It can be intimidating to play someone "so beloved and iconic" which led Bassett to concentrate on what she had in common with Mrs. King. "We both grew up with a sense of Southern gentility."
Bassett found "the internet useful for once!" She was especially drawn to "a mature interview" that Coretta gave "where she was looking back." Coretta showed "her sense of humor and her playful side."
#2. Bassett was "the first black person to be admitted to the National Honor Society" at her Florida high school. "My mother laid down the law. ‘C is average. Don't be bringing home no Cs. I don't have no average children.' She implanted such high academic expectations in me that I began to believe her. It was a real turning point."
It helped her to form her conception of Coretta. "We were both raised with the idea of education being supremely important. "
#3. Bassett was a cheerleader. "I hung out with all different groups of people. I wanted to be good, but I also wanted to hang."
She started performing at an early age. Bassett was encouraged by her mother to sing along to hit records and dance with her sister D'nette at local parties. Looking back on her celebrated performance as Tina Turner, "I laugh when I think back on how much this would aid me as a lip-syncher later in life."
To capture Scott King's physicality, Bassett was struck "by the way she holds her chin" uplifted, and her eyes "at half mast as if she's assessing the situation, protective, just a little bit of a wall" she put up to discourage "undue familiarity" – Bassett says, laughing. "You know, no foolishness."
#4. Bassett was inspired to act at age 15 when she saw James Earl Jones in "Of Mice & Men" at the Kennedy Center. "The theater had emptied, the people were gone, and I was just sitting there, boo-hooing. It was like a spark had gone off inside of me."
She was surprised to discover that Coretta "rebuffed Martin at first" because "she was busy with her own plans! She wanted to be an opera singer.
It wasn't until ten years after they met at Yale, when Angela was well established as an award-winning actress that her friendship with fellow acclaimed actor Courtney B. Vance blossomed into love and marriage.
"Forget the guys with all that drama, this is the kind of person you're looking for." They wrote about their path to romance in their 2009 book Friends: A Love Story.
Bassett and Vance became parents to twins Bronwyn and Slater in 2006.
"It became a teachable moment" doing this movie. She and Courtney got the kids the book Coretta Scott with text by Nzotake Shange illustrated with the inspiring artwork of Kadir Nelson "and we talked about it with them like we do. That she would sacrifice so much in ways many of us are just not called to do."
Of course, it'll be a while before the kids find out that among her stellar accomplishments, Angela Bassett has a very special distinction few can claim.
#5. Pulling "An Angela Bassett" Moment is in The Urban Dictionary. It comes from her, um, incendiary performance in "Waiting To Exhale." And as the Urban Dictionary so discreetly puts it, "May involve a bonfire."