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Overlooked Film Worth a Showing

'Long Walk Home' celebrates acts of courage

By M. S. MasonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1991



DENVER

IN "The Long Walk Home," history is reseen, springing up from the grass roots. As the civil rights movement began, there were indeed grand heroes like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, whose stature have increased with time. But many more unheralded individuals faced daily trials and persecutions and remained faithful to their cause through modest, daily acts of courage.

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"The Long Walk Home" details the lives of two ordinary women, a black maid and her white employer during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955. Audiences across the country have the opportunity to see the movie now because it has been rereleased. This film had been nearly buried under the big Christmas pictures, so the distributor pulled the film and gave it another opening.

"Long Walk" is a small picture with a large conscience. It eschews the overblown dramatics Hollywood usually reserves for historical topics. Writer John Cork and director Richard Pearce have constructed their taut story around Odessa Carter's (Whoopi Goldberg) quiet decision to join in nonviolent action.

After Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to sit at the back of a bus, thousands of blacks refused to ride the buses until the restrictions were changed. The Odessa character is a composite figure, and arguably Ms. Goldberg's best, most controlled performance to date. Modest, kind, decent, her Odessa is girded with steel.

Odessa's relationship with her employer is purely professional. The upper-middle-class white woman (played by Sissy Spacek) is not interested in Odessa or her family or the bus boycott. Miriam wants her maid at the job on time and ready to work. But Odessa's devotion to the cause of justice begins to work on Miriam's conscience. Miriam begins gradually to question the hatred and fear around her and to want to contribute something to the boycott. She begins by driving Odessa (contrary to her husband's di rect orders) and ends by driving other maids to work.

Miriam is not portrayed as a hero. Ms. Spacek's keen, self-denying performance keeps Miriam's struggle apparent. Clearly this woman has a good heart, if a somewhat rickety resolve. But it is not really her drama, it is Odessa's.

Odessa, by her sense of justice, moves Miriam toward simple decency. And sometimes, as in this film, mere decency becomes an act of courage.

In a recent interview, director Pearce says, "When you look back at the civil rights movement, it was an extraordinary thing. It really was the story of people who got up in the morning and acted - maybe in some microscopic way. History is partly what we read in the newspaper. But it is also what people do in their homes everyday...."

Inspired by the black churches, and led by King and other members of the clergy, ordinary men, women, and children began perhaps the greatest movement for social change in 20th-century America. But the film shows the decisions to be personal and moral, though their effects ignited vast changes in society at large, and in politics.

NO particular moment marks Odessa's "seeing the light" and making her choice to walk to work. Pearce says that when he first read the script, "part of the pleasure of this project was that you weren't going to be able to examine in any dramatic way Odessa's decision to get up in the morning and walk the four-and-a-half miles to work. In the film, that decision is at root a mystery. All of the drama is displaced onto what happens to her kids, it is not displaced to the white woman."

King's unseen presence centers the film: At one point we hear the original tape of his first sermon encouraging the boycotters as Odessa and her family stand listening outside the little church. At the end of the film we hear another of his sermons delivered 10 years later.

Writer John Cork, in a telephone interview, said, "The spirit that existed in the black community in Montgomery was something remarkable. It transformed a lot of people. The church was the center of the movement. It would be absurd to show the boycott without [reference to] the black churches and that spirit that allowed them to place the moral issues on the table."

Most major Hollywood movies in the past few years present a picture of evil (particularly but not exclusively in the form of violence) as a kind of contagion one character catches from another. Evil companions corrupt the innocent, evil antagonists draw in the wholesome protagonists. Very seldom does an individual's virtue inspire others to good in the movies, though real-life precedents are plentiful.

"One thing that is contagious," says Pearce, "is cynicism - which would say that a film like this is sentimental." Though enthusiastically endorsed by both Coretta King, and Roy Innis, chairman of the national Congress of Racial Equality, "The Long Walk Home" has been misunderstood by critics who failed to read the film for its deepest significance and lumped it in with the misconceived white-heroics of "Mississippi Burning" and "Cry, Freedom." A friendly critic suggested that "The Long Walk Home" was t aking the punch for those earlier films.

Entertaining, moving, intelligent, "The Long Walk Home" deserves better - it deserves to be seen.