Culture | February 23rd, 2023
Soledad O’Brien Strikes Again
By: Briana Michel
On Thursday, Feb. 9, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University hosted award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien for its annual Black History Month Conversation. FAMU President Larry Robinson, Ph.D., and an auditorium filled with students, faculty and community members welcomed the executive producer of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” with great reverence.
“We’re delighted to welcome Soledad O’Brien to our campus for this timely conversation about Rosa Parks, an American icon. Soledad’s career is a testament to her unstinting passion and commitment to tell important, often overlooked stories. We look forward to hearing the conversation about this true heroine of the Civil Rights Movement,” Robinson said.
The event occurred at 6 p.m. at the Lee Hall Auditorium, where O’Brien shared excerpts from the Peacock-streaming documentary film. Moderated by the Dean of FAMU’s College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, Dr. Valencia E. Matthews, Ph.D., O’Brien engaged in timely dialogue with the audience.
Adapted by Jeanne Theoharis, the basis for the documentary derived from Theoharris’s 2014 NAACP Image award-winning literary biography of the same name. Both the novel and film feature manifest a formidable corrective to the well-known image of Rosa Parks from a meek seamstress to an intentional national heroine. Unbeknownst to many, Parks’ six decades of activism went relatively unseen and unheard of despite being in full, unrestricted view.
Who was the real Rosa Parks?
The film opens with a clip from the classic game show “To Tell the Truth,” where two imposters attempt to match wits with a panel of celebrities. Three of the four Hollywood stars erroneously pitched their guess of who, anyone, in this modern day, would identify as Mrs. Rosa Parks.
“It underscores our entire point of the doc,” O’Brien said. “Here is a person that everybody knew and nobody knew.”
Within this first minute of the documentary, O’Brien, Matthews and the audience agreed that Parks’s story would encapsulate viewers.
The film acknowledges “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” as “one of the most distorted and misunderstood women of the Civil Rights Movement.” In awe that there hadn’t been one documentary about the woman everyone thought they’d known “everything about.” Narrated by Lisa Gay Hamilton, O’Brien seized the opportunity to tell Parks’s story in her own words (through, by way of, using, with) Parks’ original letters.
“Why do we love the idea of accidental?”
O’Brien believes the arch of Parks’ life was much more significant than her moment on the bus. The misconceptions society adopted as truths were just as fascinating as the unknown facts.
“The strategies behind these movements were incredible,” said O’Brien. “There was nothing accidental about Mrs. Parks. She wasn’t just tired. Her feet didn’t hurt any more than any other workday. She was tired of being pushed around.”
What piqued your interest in filmmaking and led to this shift from journalism to producing?
“I never thought of it as a complete transition, like, ‘I’m leaving this to go to that,’” O’Brien said.
O’brien’s niche for documentary filmmaking began at CNN. One of her first projects, titled “Words That Changed a Nation,” delved into the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. based on King’s never-before-seen artifacts that were up for auction.
“I loved doing it,” said O’Brien. “It was just very different, but it still felt like it was journalism. It just felt like it was a really deep dive.”
Curating, asking open-ended questions and anticipating straightforward answers are typical for journalists. Concise storytelling is a challenging feat, even for this veteran reporter.
“I love that [in] documentaries, people can explain something. They could go on. They could hold two thoughts in their heads or be contradictory, right? You can go back and forth and have a little more context. So, I really loved the opportunity to do that, and I started doing more.”
CNN asked O’Brien to do a documentary series called “Black in America,” which she said did well for the company, so they established an entire unit.
The executive producer shared that one of her most challenging moments in making the film was deciphering how to consolidate decades of work into an hour-and-a-half-long feature.
“How do you tell the story of a woman who did so much,” O’Brien said. “Everyone was arguing for their favorite pieces of her story.”
The Soledad O’Brien Productions creatives decided to focus on Parks’s life and what she was doing. They would stick to her words, her writing and her story.
It has been 14 years since O’Brien first visited FAMU’s campus in 2009 as a Spring Commencement speaker. O’Brien returned to the “Highest of Seven Hills” armed with newfound gems of advice and inspiration:
- Be intentional and stay on track. Start making a list of what you need to do and what you need to get to.
- Write, rewrite, rewrite and rewrite again. Then, accept feedback. The key is practicing it, regardless of who is watching.
- Learn how to be resilient. Get advice, bounce back and work on areas of improvement.
“Take 24 hours… on the 25th hour, make a list of what is next,” O’Brien said. “Wallow, and then move on.”
According to the executive producer, a new documentary film is already in the works at SO’B. Visit SO’B’s official website for more information.