A Life in Film

Mary J. Blige Plays Betty Shabazz in New Lifetime Movie

Blige knew little about the life of the widow of Malcolm X. But in preparing for her role in ‘Betty & Coretta,’ Blige began to dig—and fell in love.

02.01.13 9:45 AM ET

When singer Mary J. Blige decided to take on the role of Betty Shabazz, the wife of slain civil-rights leader Malcolm X, in the new Lifetime movie Betty & Coretta, she knew she was entering cherished but uncharted territory in black history.

Not only would the film reveal much about the little-known friendship and close bond shared by Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, it would also offer audiences a rare look inside the life of Shabazz, some 15 years after her tragic death.

King and Shabazz were both married to men committed to fighting for the civil rights of African-Americans—Martin Luther King Jr., revered for his nonviolent stance, and Malcolm X, often feared for his message of justice “by any means necessary.” As each man became larger than life after his death, each wife also came to be viewed through the lens of her husband’s work. Coretta Scott King was instantly compared to Jackie Onassis: the picture of her veiled and tearstained face holding one of her children at King’s funeral still lingers in the memories of many Americans four decades later.

Pictures of Shabazz shortly after Malcolm X’ s death, however, are much harder to find. Stories about her life in the early years that followed his assassination in 1965 barely existed. Blige would have to dig deeper than usual for insight into her new role. After months of research, Blige and her crew managed to find one book, various newspaper articles, and several old archived audiotapes of Shabazz speaking at events. All helped Blige shape the direction her character would take.

What they found excited her greatly. “I do think I wanted to do this role in part because it is Betty’s time to shine,” says Blige, who executive-produced the film with her husband, Kendu Isaacs. “Betty was this really amazing woman who held it together when her world fell apart and kept it moving for her children’s sake. I love hearing about those types of women, but I don’t hear enough about them. I didn’t hear enough about Betty at all.”

Blige became even more fascinated by Shabazz when she learned of her decades-long friendship with King—friendship most never imagined possible given their husband’s intense philosophical differences. (In the film, King is played by Angela Bassett, who previously portrayed Betty Shabazz in the Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.)

“I loved that their friendship was based on them and not their husbands in the end,” says Blige. “Yes, they met as a result of their husbands’ roles in history, but they remained friends because of who they were as women.”

The R&B singer adds that she decided to accept the title of a first-time executive producer after being blown away by the intensity of the story and finished script.

“I just felt this story was too important to ignore and too special not to be involved with,” says Blige. “It stresses the importance of female friendships, and more women today need to see that. Young and older women out here today don’t get that. You have to have that bond with a woman to make it.”

Jan Thijs/Lifetime

Angela Bassett (left) as Coretta Scott King and Mary J. Blige as Betty Shabazz in “Betty & Coretta.”

Betty & Coretta, which airs Saturday, effectively details the unique connection the two women treasured in the years after their husbands’ violent deaths. They shared the joys and pains of being single parents and the hardships of marriage to famous but penniless men.

“They both struggled in ways I couldn’t imagine, given what their husbands had given and their families lost,” says Blige. “They struggled financially, Betty more so than Coretta, and still faced the anger of people who hated their husbands for their work. That’s a lot to handle when your husband is gone.”

Struggle is a familiar concept for Blige, who is well known for sharing her trials and tribulations with fans through her music. Even so, the singer admits she learned a great deal from the woman she knew so little about just 12 months ago.

“Betty had this wicked sense of humor,” Blige says with a laugh. “She was really funny and could laugh in the midst of whatever was going wrong in her life. I need to find a way to do that more. I’d like to find the humor in some of the bad things life can throw at you. I haven’t been able to just yet, but I’m working on it.”