On March 25, 1991, Caryn Elaine Johnson—better known to fans (and non-fans) as Whoopi Goldberg—received tribute from her acting industry peers when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a charlatan psychic (who learns to her dismay she really is psychic) in the 1990 romantic tearjerker Ghost. If you’ve done well playing a comedic part in a film—and Goldberg’s Oda Mae Brown was without a doubt a major asset as the comic relief in this box office weepie—fellow members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences will do what they can to see you get a trophy for a supporting role. (There’s a prejudice in the industry that comedy acting is a breeze…when it’s anything but.)
Goldberg is one of those individuals jokingly known as “EGOTs”: those people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. To be perfectly frank—I’m not a Whoopi fan (I was always puzzled by the praise for her stand-up comedy specials, which rarely caused me to let loose with a healthy chuckle), though I cannot deny her talent. I’ve even enjoyed some of the movies in which she’s appeared: The Color Purple (1984—her big screen breakthrough), Soapdish (1991), The Player (1992), and Corinna, Corinna (1994) are the ones I can name off the top of my head. But in a saner world, Whoopi would have taken home her Oscar for the performance that I’ve always believed is her finest in films…and one that was released the same year as the mega-hit Ghost—The Long Walk Home (1990).
The time is 1955 and the place is Montgomery, Alabama. Odessa “Dessie” Cotter (Goldberg) works as a domestic in the home of real estate developer Norman Thompson (Dwight Schultz), his wife Miriam (Sissy Spacek), and their seven-year-old daughter Mary Catherine (Lexi Faith Randall). (The story is narrated by Mary Catherine as an adult, courtesy of Mary Steenburgen.) The arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks sets in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as members of the African-American community declare their intention not to patronize the city’s transit service to protest Montgomery racial segregation policy.
It’s not going to be easy for Odessa. It’s a good hike from her own home to Casa del Thompson, but Odessa and her family are invested in the civil rights movement (though her daughter Selma, played by Erika Alexander, believes the boycott is silly) even if this means she’s often going to be late for her job at the Thompson’s. The apolitical Miriam doesn’t quite understand the need for the boycott, either. But because she doesn’t want to lose Odessa, Miriam agrees to pick her up on the days she goes into town to market. She keeps this secret from Norman, who dismisses the boycott at first…but under pressure from his racist family—particularly his younger brother Tunker (Dylan Baker), a real piece of work—Norman’s animosity starts to match that of the Montgomery community, which is feeling the financial pinch from the decline in bus ridership. Norman even starts attending “Citizens’ Council” meetings, an outfit whose members, he once told Miriam, “can’t count to ten.”
Norman eventually learns that his wife has been helping Odessa with her transportation problems, and the couple have a particularly ugly fight. Miriam slowly starts to realize that the boycott is about much more than just a refusal to ride buses…and in solidarity with Odessa, volunteers to participate in a carpool group in support those riders observing the boycott. At the film’s climax, the viewer witnesses that there’s a long struggle ahead as Miriam, Odessa, and other protesters are confronted by an army of white, male oppressors (including Norman and Tunker) in the parking lot for vehicles used in the carpool.
Roger Ebert was quite effusive in his praise for The Long Walk Home…though he wasn’t particularly wild about the film choosing to tell its story through the adult Mary Catherine’s narration—“[A]pparently to reassure white audiences the movie is ‘really’ intended for them.” I can understand where Brother Roger is coming from; many an interesting movie detailing this important chapter of history is sabotaged by the insistence of filmmakers to have a “white” hero—the most egregious example of this is Mississippi Burning (1988), where two white FBI agents (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe) valiantly come to the rescue of the beleaguered African-American community during the Civil Rights era. (I’ve done a lot of reading on this subject…and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was anything but heroic.) Another good example is Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), which Whoopi Goldberg coincidentally appears in (as Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers) and is another of her films I like even though it commits the cardinal sin of making it all about the white guy (a lawyer played by Alec Baldwin).
But I give The Long Walk Home a little bit of leeway on this because of its subtle foreshadowing of the later feminist movement, represented by Spacek’s Miriam Thompson. A woman whose only dog in the Montgomery Bus Boycott fight is making sure her home continues to function with the help of Odessa, she slowly and admirably develops an awareness that the fight is most importantly about being on the right side of history. Long Walk focuses on the incredible courage of two women who will make their mark on the movement even if they aren’t Rosa Parks. (Long Walk gives Spacek one of her finest film turns, particularly in the scene where she nervously tells her wanker husband that she’ll run the household as she sees fit…and if that means giving her housekeeper a ride every now and then, tough titty.)
Whoopi gets second billing in the film, but it’s her Odessa Cotter that leaves the longest-lasting impression as the stoic mother who’s committed to the struggle for justice. “Miss Thompson,” observes Odessa in a sequence where she and her employer awkwardly attempt to bond, “I don’t want your children to grow up scared of mine.” There are many powerful moments in The Long Walk Home—and some disturbingly ugly ones as well—but the one that always makes me tear up is a scene where Odessa’s family (her husband is played by Ving Rhames—with hair yet) presents her with two Christmas gifts: a new coat and a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Richard Pearce not only directed Long Walk but two favorites that rank in my opinion among the most realistic depictions of rural life: Heartland (1979) and Country (1984).
I first saw The Long Walk Home a few years after its theatrical run (I’m guessing it was during my years in exile in Morgantown), and when I saw it scheduled recently on HDNet Movies I was curious to sit down with it again to see if it still held up. (And it does.) I don’t see much of Whoopi these days (well, maybe a few seconds of The View as my father switches over to his must-see noon newscast) but she demonstrates here that sometimes people win Oscars for the wrong movies.