Together, in a difficult world of black versus white, they manage to discover a common ground.
Montgomery, Alabama was not a fun place to be in 1955. The city, home of civil rights crusader Martin Luther King, Jr., was ground central for the battle for equality that raged nationwide. Like so many global issues, the effects of racism can best be conveyed through the examination of intimate relationships. The Long Walk Home was a simple, yet provocative story of a rich white woman and a working class black woman becoming friends and allies in Montgomery. Though it enjoyed only a limited theatrical release over ten years ago, the film is frequently shown in classrooms as a good lesson in civil rights. Now Artisan has brought the film to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost) is a hardworking black woman who keeps her family fed by working full time. For nine years, she has been housekeeping for Mrs. Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter), a coddled housewife.
When Rosa Parks makes history by refusing to sit in the back of a public bus, controversy rages. Dr. King calls for a bus boycott. Odessa and her husband, Herbert (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction), comply, as do the rest of the black community. Odessa has to walk—nine miles—to work, every day.
At first, Miriam thinks the boycott is pointless. Her husband, Norman (Dwight Schultz, Star Trek: First Contact), is a member of the White Citizens Council (i.e., a slightly more discreet Klan); he has obviously created a household of tolerance only for blacks in servile positions. But Miriam sees the blisters bleeding through Odessa's socks and she's compelled to act. First, a ride to work a couple times a week. Then, every day. Finally, she's signing up for car pools to ferry other boycotters.
This angers her husband and brother-in-law, and soon Miriam is surrounded by violence and seemingly difficult choices. What choice does she finally make?
Mary Catherine Thompson (Lexi Randall, Sarah, Plain and Tall) is a little kid in the middle of racist crossfire—but as she narrates (Mary Steenburgen provides the voice over) looking back, it was a time of growth and learning as well.
Odessa held Mary Catherine when she was a baby. She watches her play with other kids while her mother has lunch with the ladies. She cooks their breakfast and makes their beds. To Mary Catherine, Odessa is family.
To the Thompsons and their guests, Odessa is a "nigger," as one matron says while Odessa hands out rolls at Christmas dinner. The room grows silent. "And I don't care who hears me," the old biddy shamelessly adds.
These scenes, without overbaked drama or pretension, show the race war in all its complexity and struggle. Church patrons singing passionate spirituals, a black boy outnumbered by white antagonists, a woman clutching her daughter as she faces rioting white men. In fact, the movie is so sparing in these moments of passionate drama, The Long Walk Homealmost hits a dull patch, but not quite—rather, the effect is eloquent and educational without overdoing it.
Speaking of not overdoing it, for once Whoopi Goldberg is not obnoxious. Hey, I liked Sister Act as well as the next guy, but man, those Oscar telecasts…grrr. She is just not my favorite actress. Here, however, she is refined, dignified, and simple. Easy does it, Whoopi. Good job.
Also making a good turn is Dylan Baker (Road to Perdition), the ubiquitous character actor, as Miriam's brother-in-law Tunker. He brings steely hate to the role, the kind that makes you wince. And yet, on the outside, he's everyone's favorite uncle.
Good acting like this shouldn't be shadowed in such a blah transfer by Artisan. It's obvious the movie was made to look classic, of the '50s itself. Still, the soft edges and tones are exaggerated with this transfer. Though "digitally remastered" (and what isn't these days? Reruns of The Facts of Life?), the transfer is dull and flaccid. Interior shots can be dark and fuzzy, murky; at times, definition is low. Plus, this film, which enjoyed a limited theatrical release, is in 1.33:1 full screen. Hello? And that's all I'm going to say.
The sound coming out of my front speakers was somewhat muted. High pitches had fuzz around them and music and dialogue were less than sharp. Some clarity broke out every now and then, but this was not a clear transfer. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround barely squeaked through side speakers. No alternate subtitles or soundtracks are available on this disc.
There are, regrettably, no extras here. After the pulse-pounding tension of the film, and the disgust you feel that race issues were ever so pervasive so recent in our history—and exist today—you want something, perhaps a relevant documentary piece or interviews with the cast and/or producers.
An excellent film that deserves some extras to contextualize the subject matter, and one that deserves a better visual and audio transfer. Artisan dropped the ball on the DVD transfer; but the film is so well acted and well written, it's good enough to stand on its own.
Since The Long Walk Home has already been serving community service in the social studies classes of high schools everywhere, I'm letting this one go off with a rap on the wrist. But the mediocre transfer to DVD has been duly noted!
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