TV One’s new original film, Behind The Movement tells the story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott came together following the 1955 arrest of activist Rosa Parks. The movie not only refutes the myth that Parks (portrayed by Meta Golding) was merely a tired woman who decided to stay put after a long day at work, but also highlights the contributions of unsung leaders responsible for the one of the most impactful protests in the history of the United States.
Legendary actress Loretta Devine portrays Jo Ann Robinson, who was then president of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery and an English professor at Alabama State College. It was Robinson who mimeographed thousands of fliers to help get the word out about what was originally intended to be a one-day protest and who helped lead the carpooling efforts that made it possible for the boycott to last 381 days.
Devine has been a beloved fixture in on the big and small screen for decades, starring in films such as Waiting To Exhale, Crash and For Colored Girls. Her TV resume includes the critically acclaimed Boston Public, The Carmichael Show and an Emmy-award winning role on Gray’s Anatomy—and parents everywhere certainly recognize her distinct voice as “Halle” on Disney Junior’s megahit Doc McStuffins.
Our sister site, NewsOne spoke to the Houston native about the power of Behind the Movement and the modern day protest movement that has taken her industry by storm.
NEWSONE: How did your prepare for the role of Jo Ann Robinson?
Loretta Devine: For me, it was gathering the passion. It was learning about her, watching her speak, and talking to the director and finding out what he was expecting. It’s different than creating a character from scratch, where you can do anything like add little tics. But I wanted her passion to show and I think I was successful in doing that.
NEWSONE: Jo Ann Robinson is rarely mentioned when the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is told. Why do you think her story was lost to history in that way?
LD: Well, I think it’s kind of ironic sometimes that we don’t pick our own heroes. We don’t pick who’s going to be at the front as Black people. I think the culture sort of does that: Whoever’s reviewing the show or writing the story. But Rosa Parks was the key that they needed to make this happen. [So] a lot of times it takes a village. And a lot of people look over that information. And mainly the people that lived in Montgomery, they were the heroes. They were the ones that walked to work and were threatened to make this change come about.
When you think about the change that it was, it was a small change. It was saying “I can pay my fare [and] sit where I want.” Which is what everybody else has the right to do. A lot of times we end up fighting about something really tiny, but it ends up changing the entire world. So to know about Rosa Parks, the ones who needed to know about Jo Ann Robinson knew who she was in her lifetime.
I really loved my character. I loved the passion that this woman had to make a change come about. And she was well to do. She had a great position in the community, but she used that to make sure what needed to be done got done.
NEWSONE: With women being at the front of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements right now, why do you think it’s important to tell their stories?
LD: Well, we’re living in a very unusual time. Movements like the #MeToo movement are changing now the way women are treated and their expectations [for treatment]. And it’s doing the same thing that was happening in Behind The Movement. Like in the #MeToo movement, the women are trying to bring about a change in the way people think. The way boys treat girls is something that was taught in this culture. That the more girls you get the more of a man you are.
So these are things that have to be changed. And to bring about any change it takes a lot of action and a lot of people getting together and saying “ I agree.” So the movie teaches that not only do you have a voice, you have to put action in it. You have to put your money in it. You have to give your energy to it. You have to give your time. These people in 1955, they made a change. They didn’t even have the Internet. They didn’t even have an iPhone. [Laughs] And if they could do it, then you need to speak up and get it done, too.
So I think in a way this movie sort of teaches some of those things. I think that people will be proud. And it’s a beautifully done movie: The pictures, the clothes…and the direction. The way Aric zooms in on the fingers for shots… But these people are young, so they see things in ways I don’t see things.
NEWSONE: What is the significance of a film like this airing on TVOne (a Black-owned network)?
LD: Well, it’s Black History Month. It’s February. I think they have a plan for more people to get a chance to see it. There are all kinds of outlets now. But it’s very important for it to come out on TVOne because that’s a network that we know a lot of Black people watch. So when you have something that you’re proud of and that gives you a feeling of pride is so important. Especially at times like now when there’s so much fear and unevenness going on, to have something that’s uplifting. The film is uplifting despite all that’s going on, and I think that any race that sees it can feel good about it because they have good characters in it that are white as well as Black.
NEWSONE: What will ultimately be the impact of the #MeToo movement?
LD: I think it’s gonna make a change in the way men think, and what people tell their sons and daughters. There’s so much in our culture where you can watch television and watch women get beat up all-day and killed all day. And they say if you don’t want to see that turn it off, but it’s there for people to look at. You wish to live in a place where a woman can walk around at night and not need protection. That’s not a truth here. I mean, from the time they’re little you have to make sure you can see your daughter at all times. And [traditionally] you need to push your boy out. “Don’t be cryin’,” “Be strong,” “Be mean.”
So you teach these things to kids from the time they’re little. You tell little girls, “You need to be protected.” “Don’t be goin’ out of the house, where are you going, sit down, keep your dress down.” So maybe this movement will bring about some change in what we say to them. Or maybe people will start thinking about safety and us not being afraid of each other. Why should we have to live in a world where people in high positions are being disrespectful to people that could be their mother? This change is something, I think, we all should want because it would be a better world. It would be a better place to live.
NEWSONE: Do you think this moment in history will find more Black women getting to be leaders, in politics, Hollywood and beyond?
LD: I grew up in Houston with Barbara Jordan and she was a powerful Black woman in my eyes. I think people are becoming so much more politically-minded now because of what’s going on in the country. Everyone is watching and because of the internet you can just pull up whatever (President) Trump said on your device and be like, “Oh, lord, what’s gonna happen now!?”…(And so) women are more interested now in stepping to the forefront.
(On television) Black women are now lead characters like Viola Davis and Kerry Washington. Octavia Spencer got an Oscar, which puts her in A-list movies. Those were things that weren’t happening when I first was trying to get parts here. So you just hope these doors stay open so young girls can look at these roles and think, “Hey, that’s a possibility for me. If I study, I can do this.”
NEWSONE: We have to ask: Is there any remaining hope for a Waiting to Exhale sequel?
LD: God, they think about it all the time! But it’d be on Terry McMillan, and two of the original cast members (Gregory Hines and Whitney Houston) are no longer with us, so it’d be difficult without that strong original group. They’ve tried with a few writers and Terry, but it just wasn’t right.
Behind the Movement debuts on TVOne on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at 7pm EST. Click here to learn more about the film.