EXCLUSIVE: Helmer Julie Dash has signed on to direct an upcoming biopic on Rosa Parks, which will center on the decade before her seminal moment on a Montgomery bus, when Parks, already an activist of her time, sought justice for 24-year-old wife and mother Recy Taylor, who was brutally gang-raped by six white men in Alabama in 1944.
The project hails from Invisible Pictures with Audrey Rosenberg (I Am Not Your Negro) and Jess Jacobs producing for the company along with Gary Riotto and Rachel Watanabe-Batton. The film is based on the book At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire, which Lisa Jones (HBO’s Disappearing Acts) adapted as a screenplay.
Said Rosenberg, “[The producers] were inspired by the book and how Danielle framed black women’s collective actions, reactions, resistance to sexual violence and oppression, but more importantly their agency and how they sparked the civil rights movement.”
Dash was brought on to direct having had experience with telling the story of the civil rights activist. She directed the 2002 CBS TV movie The Rosa Parks Story, which starred Angela Bassett.
“I jumped at the opportunity to dive head first back into the Rosa Parks story,” Dash told Deadline. “Doing the CBS movie, I realized that there was so much more to her life, legacy, and her activism that we didn’t have time in one [movie]. It was fascinating and just as dramatic as the Montgomery bus boycott, which is what she’s known for, but there is so much more.”
Per Dash, the film will not only center on Park’s efforts, but also the many other female activists who banded together to defend Taylor and demand justice for the crime (the perpetrators were never arrested, and Taylor’s case was dismissed).
“This is a great opportunity to revisit Jo Anne Robinson, Claudette Colvin, Recy Taylor, all the people who never really make it into The Rosa Parks Story,” Dash said. “It’s an ensemble cast of feisty activists who changed the course of history” and laid the foundation for future civil rights demonstrations.
Dash underscored the significance of telling authentic stories through an authentic perspective. “It’s important that black women, who know these stories and have intimate knowledge, that we tell these stories in the manner that they were meant to be told… It’s time to see theses stories in a new light and through a female lens.”
Beyond that, said Rosenberg, it’s essential “to understand the importance of people to have this platform and this space to create and tell their stories” to start a conversation. “Out of that incredible and potential collaboration is harmony,” she said.
One why this story, and others like it, can still be relevant in the current societal climate, Dash offered, “One of the reasons this story is being told is so that people can connect the dots and see that there’s a continuum.” She continued: “Maybe it’s not the back of the bus, but the hypocrisy is the same, the racism is the same, the systemic oppression is the same, and the rape cases are absolutely the same.” Dash said she hope those who see the film will be inspired “with what has been accomplished in the past” and motivated to “understand the bigger picture.”
“There are so many things that are happening today that run parallel,” she said.
The film is in its early stages, with a production start date eyed for 2018, but the filmmakers are optimistic about the project’s reception. “I think it’ll be a wonderful festival movie and we have high hopes for what it can do globally,” said Rosenberg. “We feel that the story is not just a domestic story… we feel encouraged by what we think is going to be the response.”
Dash has left indelible marks of her own in history. With her 1991 film Daughters Of The Dust, she become the first African American woman to have her feature released in theaters in the U.S.; the film is being preserved by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress and inducted into the Sundance Collection. More recently, she has directed multiple episodes of the OWN/Ava DuVernay series Queen Sugar, which returns with the second half of Season 2 next month.