Movies Reviews

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: What to Expect in the Peacock Documentary

Last week, as part of its frequently underrated documentaries strand, Peacock released The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Based on the biography of the same name by Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis, the documentary recounts the life and times of Parks, one of the civil rights movement’s most important leaders. Her 1955 protest against the segregation of the bus service in Montgomery, Alabama, sparked a wave of protest that ultimately led to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act under Lyndon B. Johnson.


Yet for much of her life after the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks remained a strangely detached figure. Lacking the charismatic persona of Martin Luther King Jr. (whose own journey has been related many times on film, including in the 2014 drama Selma), she often seemed to be on the periphery of events, despite her lifelong dedication to and involvement in the advancement of human rights. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks redresses the balance, showing Parks as a key figure and a source of inspiration for countless people many decades after the events of 1955.

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Here’s what to expect.


Rosa Parks as an Accidental Icon

Rosa Parks never intended to be a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. Like so many of us, she was prompted to act when she could stand no more. On December 1, 1955, Parks was asked to move out of her seat by the driver of the bus she was riding in Montgomery, Alabama, in order to make way for a white passenger who had just boarded. This was in accordance with the laws then in place locally. Parks refused and was arrested for her defiance.

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Less than a week later, the Montgomery bus boycott was set in motion. This action was to last over a year and ultimately led to the city’s desegregation of the bus service.

As the documentary makes clear, Parks was an unlikely but perfect candidate to actuate the protest. She was married, respectable, and had a steady job (she worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for a local couple), but she was also politically aware. Parks was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for many years. These qualities made her an excellent figurehead for the growing civil rights movement.

A Singular Dedication to Civil Rights

Yet after the successful conclusion of the boycott, Parks found it difficult to make headway. Now viewed as a troublemaker by many in the community, she eventually moved to Detroit, where inequalities between white and Black neighborhoods were as painfully obvious as they had been in Montgomery. Much work remained to be done, and Parks threw herself into activism, campaigning for fairer housing.

The words of Parks herself emerge in copious use of archive footage from interviews conducted during this period. The documentary also features an impressive array of friends, family members, and acquaintances, who lose no time in lauding this often unsung later work.

It was work conducted in spite of substantial personal hardships. In 1977, Parks’ husband Raymond died, and her sister and mother followed within two years of one another. Parks spent much of the decade in financial difficulties and was forced to accept contributions from churches and well-wishers.

Related: Here’s 5 Great Films That Fight for Civil Rights

The documentary opens with an awkward clip from a 1980 game show on which Parks appeared, in which half of the panel could not recognize her by face. It speculates that the tawdry TV appearance was probably agreed to by her for financial reasons. Yet her dedication to the cause of civil rights remained, and in spite of declining health, she continued to speak regularly at public events.

Rosa Parks’ Resounding Legacy

When Parks died in 2005, her legacy had been recognized. By the turn of the century, she had been honored with dozens of honorary doctorates bestowed on her by universities across the globe, as well as the Congressional Gold Medal, and even a mention by Bill Clinton in his State of the Union address.

But, as The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks makes abundantly clear, Parks’ lasting legacy was in the sea change in attitudes that her actions and the actions of so many others with the civil rights movement precipitated. There are multiple fictional portrayals of Parks’ life, in everything from biopics dedicated to her, such as The Rosa Parks Story, a 2002 film featuring Angela Bassett, to even an episode of Doctor Who. These, and more, confirm her continuing importance in a world that is more polarized than ever and the potency of the philosophy of freedom and liberty she espoused.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is available for streaming on Peacock.

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