Documenting a Civil Rights Legend

Documenting a Civil Rights Legend

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CUI adjunct professor Angela Williamson became a first-time documentary filmmaker because of a family connection to civil rights icon Rosa Parks — and her film won the top award at the Culver City Film Festival in December.

The documentary, "My Life with Rosie," shows the family side of the woman who helped spark the civil rights movement, and tells the story of her lifetime of public service in the city of Detroit.

“It’s been humbling for me,” says Williamson. “When you work so hard for something and are able to touch people’s lives, that lets you know your life has meant something.”

Williamson says that as an African-American, “I was in awe of [Parks], but never knew that one day I would marry into this extraordinary family. What was precious to me was when they had a bridal shower for me and she gave me a book that said, ‘Welcome to Our Family.’ I thought, oh, my gosh, my history book has just come alive.”

I hope anyone who watches this documentary feels that it doesn’t matter what they’re going through. We can still do good.

Williamson became a producer and writer at the Orange County News Channel and FOX 11 Television, and later joined CUI’s communication studies department as an adjunct faculty member in 2007, teaching public relations and public speaking. She also created two online social media courses at CUI which are still popular today.

When her father-in-law died in 2015, she made a video for his memorial service and realized anew the rich history in her extended family.

“After listening to [my father-in-law’s] sisters, I decided I needed to do a documentary focusing on Carolyn [Williamson Green] who was the closest to Cousin Rosie,” Angela says. “I wanted to capture the Williamson side of the family and our relationship with Rosie.”

Parks never had children, and was Angela’s husband’s grandfather’s first cousin. After refusing to give up her seat on the bus in 1955, which led to a year-long, citywide boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, Parks lost her job and began receiving death threats. So her brother and Angela’s husband’s grandfather moved Rosa and her husband, Raymond, to Detroit.

What unfolded was a life of activism in that city — a fact mostly missing from history books, but not from the many streets, parks and buildings named after her. The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has the original bus on which Parks refused to budge, and Williamson shot a scene of three generations of her family telling stories about Parks’ legacy to the younger generation, including Angela’s son.

“Hearing all these things that Rosie went through and how she suffered financially and emotionally and physically but kept going and saying, ‘I’m going to make this a better place’ — I hope anyone who watches this documentary feels that it doesn’t matter what they’re going through. We can still do good,” says Williamson.

You don’t know what a good thing you have just done by actually telling her story this way.

It took two years to finish the film. Friends in the industry provided voice-overs and other professional skills. Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and a professor in New York City’s Brooklyn College, provided much information on and off camera. So did Parks’ cousin Carolyn, her personal caretaker and assistant before her death.

“My Life with Rosie” premiered in December at the Cinemark Theater in the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center as part of the Culver City Film Festival.

“I was really nervous by the time they showed mine,” Williamson says.

She happened to be congratulating another winner when they announced the grand prize.

“I heard three people say, ‘Angela, you won!’” she recalls. “I was embarrassed because the whole time I’d sat there quiet, and the one time I started chatting, they called my name.”

The victory left her feeling “awe-struck,” she says. “When I put this documentary together, I did it first as a mother. I thought, maybe I’ll take it to schools. I hadn’t thought of putting it in film festivals. Now everybody wants to see it.”

Angela’s making a documentary, when she’d never done anything like that before, is the epitome of living Rosa Parks’ legacy — trying to educate and be of service to others to make the world a better place.

Trish Smith Ollry, assistant professor and chair of the communication studies department at CUI, has worked with Williamson for the last ten years.

“I greatly admire Dr. Williamson's determination and humility,” Ollry says. “The fact that she'd never made a documentary before didn't deter her at all. She drew from the skills and experience she had in television production, reached out to her extensive network of friends and colleagues in various media fields for support, and put together a plan. Not only is Dr. Williamson an excellent technical resource for our students, but she's an even better role model of the personal characteristics they will likely need in the future. Concordia University Irvine is incredibly lucky to have her working with us.”

Ollry was especially struck by the scene in the film with Parks’ family members sharing stories on the bus.

“Angela’s making a documentary, when she’d never done anything like that before, is the epitome of living Rosa Parks’ legacy — trying to educate and be of service to others to make the world a better place,” Ollry says.

The documentary will appear in two more film festivals this spring, and now has international distribution. At the Culver City premiere, during a Q&A afterward, one woman stood up and told Angela, “You don’t know what a good thing you have just done by actually telling her story this way.”

“I got chills because that’s my goal: to celebrate the human spirit,” says Williamson. “That let me know I was on right track and this was something I was made to do. God has this path for me.”

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