In an exclusive interview with EBONY, Isaiah Washington dishes on new TV One original Behind the Movement, overshadowed icons and what this film means for African-Americans today, especially during Black History Month.
Tell me about the film Behind the Movement.
It’s a highly educational film, even for me. There’s a lot I thought I knew about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. After reading Katrina O’Gilvie’s screenplay, I was sent down various rabbit holes, realizing that there were a lot of people that were working so hard and were real juggernauts of strategy when it came to the movement. I didn’t know that Rosa Parks was already an activist working with the NAACP, and that made me feel really ignorant. It made me upset that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.
That was actually the deciding factor in my decision to take the role because I knew absolutely nothing about A. Philip Randolph, Jo Ann Robinson and Edgar Daniel Nixon, whom I play, and their contributions. Even Parks’ lawyers, Fred Gray and Charles Langford. It was just a wonderful and educational journey for me.
How important is it that we recognize these often-overlooked figures from the Civil Rights Movement?
Immensely important. Obviously, Rosa herself didn’t create the narrative surrounding her story and being the most notable figure, but this film is here to say, ‘Look, this is the truth.’ We control the narrative now, and I believe we got it right.
We screened this movie in Montgomery (Alabama) with a few living members of the movement who actually knew these icons, and we got the thumbs up!
Can you speak on preparing for your role as E.D. Nixon?
For me, I didn’t have the opportunity to find the proper linguist for the part, but there’s one video of him on YouTube speaking at Washington University in St. Louis. It appeared to have been filmed maybe a year or two before he passed. I was just listening to him tell the story, and it seemed like he was a man mostly interested in setting the record straight.
He wondered why there was always so much talk of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but not of Langford or Grey or Robinson, and particularly, of him! I think we got his general attitude down, and it just opens up your curiosity about who he was and his contributions.
And they were dedicated! In a 24-hour period, they not only printed 35,000 leaflets but were able to get them out to that many people within a three-day period. Most of the time, you can’t get Black people to show up at a dinner on time [Laughs]. We talk about unity, but that level of unity? To me, that’s the personification of being united and having an unbelievable grassroots strategy, approach and execution.
How would you say this telling of Rosa Parks’ story differs from other civil rights films we’ve seen?
I think we’re unique in that we’re attempting to tell the full story. A lot of us were miseducated and don’t know how MLK came to prominence or that Rosa Parks sitting on that bus wasn’t the beginning of the movement. We’re presenting information that a lot of us just didn’t have before.
What impact do you hope the film will have, especially during Black History Month?
Hopefully, for those who think they know the story, they’ll be shocked, appalled and then elevated, because they, too, have been miseducated about the true narrative. While we have one month for Black History, they created history in three days. If they can do all of that in three days, imagine what we can do beyond one month or even a year. I want people to know that with knowledge, and this is exemplified by Fred Grey and Charles Langford, we can free ourselves by using the oppressor’s laws, and that still rings true today.
Beyond the Movement premieres on TV One Sunday, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.