Over the course of four decades in journalism, I have seen perhaps a dozen news stories that I covered turned into what are called "docudramas" -- re-enacted film versions of actual events. Since these undertakings represent an odd blend of journalism, history and creative writing, I always await the result with much trepidation. I have found some of the "docudramas" to be factually faithful; others can only be called a deliberate distortion of history. But none has ever more skillfully captured the essence and ambience of the story than a film which has just opened at movie theaters across the country, called "The Long Walk Home."
This film relates the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 -- the event which is generally regarded as the catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is not, strictly speaking, a "docudrama," because the film does not purport to be a scrupulous factual account of what took place. Rather, it is a fictionalized version of the events of 35 years ago which set off a revolution in America.
As a film genre, "The Long Walk Home" might be viewed as a sequel to the classic 1962 film "To Kill A Mockingbird," which depicted the languid rhythms of life in the changeless South, where sentimentality and graciousness masked a dark undercurrent of violence and brutality. Each story is told through the eyes of a child -- one set in the Depression, the other a generation later.
"The Long Walk" features two accomplished actresses, Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, portraying characters thrown together by fate -- Ms. Goldberg as Odessa, the maid who lives in the "colored quarter" of Montgomery, Ms. Spacek as Miriam, the young white matron who lives in the elegant part of town. As the film opens, Odessa and Miriam seem to enjoy a comfortable relationship within the context of their ordered world of "the Southern Way of Life," a balmy euphemism for the cradle-to-grave segregation that characterized the Old South.
But when Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, Odessa joins the bus boycott, and the two women become adversaries in a way that is so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. As the tension in the community builds, Odessa and Miriam gradually come to understand that, far from being adversaries, they are sisters -- two women captured in a rigid and stultifying environment of conformity which is not of their making, and certainly not of their choosing.
There are many moving moments in the film, but none is more poignant than the scene of the Christmas dinner at Miriam's home. The table conversation is dominated by the men, who prattle the common stereotypes of blacks as lazy, ambitionless people. Only Miriam seems to grasp the irony that at the very moment this conversation is taking place, Odessa has given up Christmas with her own family in order to toil for the low wage of around $4 a day to serve Christmas dinner to her white employers sitting at the table.
But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this film is its source -- the writer of the original screenplay which forms the story.
It is hard to imagine a more implausible person than John Cork to relate such a sensitive story. Born into a Montgomery family of wealth and privilege, John Cork numbers in his ancestry governors, congressmen and Confederate officers. His grandfather, in whose home he grew up after his mother divorced early in his life, was the town's leading developer, and president of the country club. John was not born until after the bus boycott had ended with a Supreme Court decision in 1957 overturning the Montgomery segregation laws.
But his mother, Betty, who bears a striking resemblance in appearance and temperament to the character portrayed by Sissy Spacek in the film, lived through the tense period, and she was determined that her son would know that he lived in a place where history had been made. When he was old enough to understand such matters, she took him to the gleaming white Alabama Capitol, and told him: "This is where the Confederacy was organized." Then she took him a short distance away to Martin Luther King Jr.'s humble little church and told him, "This is where the civil rights movement began." This instruction planted the first stirrings in a sensitive young mind which would, in time, produce this remarkable film.
I remember John Cork as a tyke playing in the yard of his family's lakeside cabin which I used to visit as a family friend. Little did I imagine that this youngster would one day relate, through the mechanism of film and fiction, the story that I had reported through the ephemeral medium of daily newspapers.
Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.