Alabama burning

Myron Beckenstein

April 16, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein

WHEN WE LEFT "Long Walk Home" my wife was not in a good mood. She said the movie made her think of what it was like during that part of the civil rights wars and got her angry all over again. I am not sure if Martin Luther King or the film's writer would approve.

But it does show how effective the movie is. Unlike some of the more heavily promoted movie and TV films that rely heavily on famous events, famous clashes or famous imaginings, "Long Walk Home" is about ordinary people and shows how the black and white communities initially were affected by Rosa Park's decision 35 years ago not to sit in the back of the bus anymore, a move that ended up affecting us all.

The main characters are a pair of Montgomery, Ala., women, the black played by Whoopi Goldberg and the white by Sissy Spacek. Whoopi is a maid whose travel to work is hampered by the bus boycott; Sissy is the woman for whom Whoopi works. At some point, Sissy's problem in getting the maid to work moves from a concern about household management to a concern about people.

And that's the movie. It is not preachy or bashing. There are no big court decisions, no big marches, no big, bloody clashes -- although there are two key confrontation scenes, including the climactic one that is used more for what is called character development than pyrotechnics. But even this scene is based on real history.

The movie works on our emotions, not to inflame blindly but to explain. You understand how blacks felt as they decided to make their lives even worse in order to try to make them better. In some respects it is harder to live for a cause than to die for it.

Adding to the film's power is that the whites aren't treated as drooling stick figures. Looking back from the present makes history seem inevitable, but it isn't. Instead of portraying the events through the wisdom of today, they are put within the times.

You see how revolutionary the boycott idea, and what it meant, was and how hard it was for people to realize that it, or something like it, was necessary. For blacks and whites alike, it was not some distant theory that was being called into question but everyday life itself, the comfort of the familiar, even if it was harsh or unjust.

Whites suddenly found themselves having to fight to protect a way of life they were used to, one that made them superior without having to do or accomplish anything. Even if they realized it was wrong, it was better for them than what they thought would replace it. For too many, the response was not to think and adjust but to curl their fists and protect their ill-gotten territory.

The attitude of whites toward their servant class is shown at a family dinner when a white woman complains about how lazy Montgomery's blacks are. Some of the more sensitive whites seem worried about her speaking out in front of the maids, wounded feelings and all that.

But the irony of the remarks seem to escape them: They are relaxing at a Christmas dinner, being served by a "lazy" black woman who has to spend her holiday working. This never dawns on them; their prejudices protect them from reality.

Sissy is not one of your pointy-headed liberals. She is as much a product of her town and times as the other characters. She has gone to college, but has become a mannequin, managing her house, going to parties, always looking crisp, never allowed to think for herself.

That the civil rights movement was the foremother of the women's movement was shown by the film's linking the two. When Sissy's husband found out she was secretly giving Whoopi rides to work, he exploded and demanded that she stop. When she defied him, she in effect chose two revolutions.

Sissy's husband also is an understandable figure. So is the evil influence on him, his brother. He too is basically a decent human being, though one with blinders.

That divisions based on skin color can be only skin deep was borne out last Saturday at an Archeological Society of Maryland symposium by Mark P. Leone of the University of Maryland.

Describing a dig he had made into two old black areas of Annapolis, he said that with one exception, a straightening comb, there was no way to tell from the artifacts recovered that the area had been occupied by blacks and not whites. The remains of the two subcultures were identical. But to the people alive there 100 years ago, they were two distinct societies.

Movies like "Mississippi Burning" distort civil rights history. Some, like the ABC's recent "Separate But Equal," recreate major events. But "Long Walk Home" explains us to ourselves and lets us see how major events look to minor players.

The sad thing was that there were only five people in the audience that night. Another sad thing is that the civil rights battle isn't over. Some people still are choosing to defend their territory. The Supreme Court yesterday said it would hear arguments on whether Mississippi was still segregating its facilities, 37 years after Brown vs. Board of Education and 36 years after "all deliberate speed."

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