Impressive 'Long Walk' captures lives of two women in a crisis

March 22, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'The Long Walk Home'

Starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek.

Directed by Richard Pearce.

Released by Miramax.

Rated PG.

*** 1/2 Richard Pearce's magnificent "Long Walk Home" knows the most important thing about being politically correct: that it doesn't matter.

What's so wonderful about the movie is the way in which, while moral, decent, on the right side, doing the right thing, blah blah, yawn and ZZZZZZ-zzzzzzzz, it doesn't forget to be a good movie.

Set in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, during the bus boycott that was the crucible of the Civil Rights movement, it tracks the play of this crisis across the lives of two families, one white, one black, united by a domestic utility. The black mother is the maid in the white mother's house. Each takes the other for granted; over the movie's course, they learn how much they need each other.

"The Long Walk Home" isn't big on such docudrama specialties as History with a capital H. It pays scant attention to the emergence of Martin Luther King to the forefront of the movement as he struggled to find his oratorical style and impose his powerful sense of both discipline and non-violence on his followers.

Rather, it's the story of Miriam and Odessa.

Both are initially familiar, pure '50s types. Miriam (Sissy Spacek) is haute bourgeoise white, proud of her spick-and-span house and children, her nifty perm, her "appliances," her up-and-coming husband. That she has inherited it all by virtue of her race never occurs to her; that her place in it is sustained by a system of institutionalized oppression also never occurs to her. Yet the movie is at pains to point out that she is not evil: She's merely human, accepting what has been handed her by her culture.

Odessa (Whoopi Goldberg) is the invisible woman: hard-working, taciturn, obedient but far from servile, but also only truly at ease with her employer's children (whom she loves dearly); she dreams, in her most private moments, of a better life for her own children.

When -- off screen -- Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of a Montgomery bus and the bus boycott is seemingly improvised on the spot, the relationship between Miriam and Odessa is suddenly on the front lines; the kitchen has been politicized. It turns out, as Miriam realizes, that she's the dependent one: she needs Odessa desperately. It also turns out that Odessa is one of those secret heroes -- no orator, no civil rights worker, no voter registration firebrand, hers is the quieter kind of courage that simply commits itself to quiet suffering day after day after day; she will not take the bus. Hers is the long walk home.

Thus, by slow degrees, does Miriam become her reluctant chauffeur and then collaborator, and thus sees through her illusions for the first time the reality of the system that smothers yet sustains her. And she understands how it must be changed and why it must be changed. Yet once again, her decision isn't overdone: These people never lose their humanity to become symbols, which of course has the effect of making their symbolic identities all the more vivid.

The movie, from a screenplay by John Cork, manages to adroitly depict a society in transition. Most of the whites understand how fundamental the revolution they are facing is; and they understand how it is not merely about who sits where on the bus but about who sits where in the universe. Pearce also makes the clever point that the system of oppression they had invented wasn't only specifically racist in nature; it was just as unthinkingly sexist, holding, as had people who once believed the universe rotated around the Earth, that the world rotated around the whims of the white male.

The movie isn't flawless. Structurally it's awkward, beginning and ending with a syrupy voice-over by Mary Steenburgen, which casts it in the form of a memoir -- Steenburgen the grown-up remembering her childhood as the daughter of Spacek and Dwight Schultz. But then it proceeds to dramatize events that the child could never have witnessed. And in spots it puts a bit too much Malibu hills folk wisdom into Whoopi Goldberg's mouth.

But it's still an impressive document: a filmic version of "We shall overcome," with the emphasis on the sisterhood implicit in the word "We."

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