Rosa Parks is a household name, renowned across the country as the brave woman who refused to give up her seat and kick started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But according to the actress who played her, the public actually knows very little about the civil rights icon.
Meta Golding, who portrays Parks in the upcoming biopic Behind the Movement on TV One, contends that sexism is the reason why we can immediately summon up Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice in our minds, but might be hard-pressed to even pick out Parks’s face in a lineup.
“I think that sexism did not discriminate and was very much a part of the civil rights movement, and so we didn’t get to hear or see the in depth stories of the women who fought the fight alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” Golding told InStyle.
To prepare to play the icon, the Hunger Games alum took a deep dive into the archives. “There is audio and video available, but unfortunately a lot of it is interviews, so they’re a little bit more formal,” she said.
Instead, Golding got a better understanding of Parks through books written by the civil rights activist herself. “Rosa Parks was a very prolific writer herself, so I read everything that she wrote,” Golding told us. “Some of her family members wrote about Rosa, about what she was like from an intimate family perspective,” she said, adding that those personal stories helped her to better understand her private identity, not just her public persona.
Golding tried her best to stay true to Parks, but to embody her and not imitate her—something made easier by the general public’s lack of knowledge of how she spoke and carried herself. “Even though she’s an icon, at least I didn’t really know very much about her. I knew obviously what she did, and I knew that she was this national treasure. But I didn’t know very much about her personally. I didn’t know her voice. It wasn’t like Martin Luther King that you just hear that timbre and you know exactly who it is,” Golding told InStyle.
“I was trying to get down her dialect, her voice, her manner of speaking and walking. And someone told me, ‘Well listen, you know, it’s not that the public has this knowledge of how she spoke. It’s really an image, so make it your own.’”
Not knowing her voice is just the beginning: Parks was so much more than a lady unwilling to move from her perch. “What I didn’t realize that by the time she refused to give up her seat, this was an act of a seasoned activist,” Golding told us. “The truth is that this was a woman who had been fighting for civil rights her entire life. She was actually a revolutionary.”
A talented seamstress by day, the secretary of the NAACP in Montgomery on the side, Parks was no stranger to the civil rights movement. And she knew what she was risking by taking a (figurative) stand, and turning that statement into a movement.
“Her and the other Montgomery activists organized a boycott in three days. For black people at the time, to boycott you could lose your job, you could lose your life. It was very, very dangerous,” Golding said. “Also, what it meant on a personal level, even though she was an activist, to become the face of the boycott. And how that has an effect on a human being because now she was directly vulnerable to threats and death threats and so was her family.”
From the very start of Behind the Movement, it’s clear that Parks knew what she was getting herself into. While she may not have been planning to get arrested that very night, it wasn’t totally out of character for the activist, who was still outraged that Emmett Till’s murderers were let off without consequence. She wasn’t weary from working a long shift; She was tired from the reality of life as a black woman in Montgomery, Ala.
It isn’t just the viewers who will be getting a history lesson: Even the movie’s stars, like iconic actress Loretta Devine, learned a lot from the script. “I thought I knew a lot about the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Devine told reporters. “I was a young girl then myself.”
“I was amazed at the things that I didn’t know and that people will learn as a result of seeing this movie.”
Behind the Movement airs Feb. 11 on TV One.