The Long Walk Home (1990)

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Directed by Richard Pearce
Written by John Cork

Rated R

Sissy Spacek as Miriam Thompson
Whoopi Goldberg as Odessa Cotter
Dwight Schultz as Norman Thompson
Ving Rhames as Herbert Cotter
Dylan Baker as Tunker Thompson
Erika Alexander as Selma Cotter
Lexi Faith Randall as Mary Catherine Thompson
Mary Steenburgen as the Narrator

The Long Walk Home is a film set during a turbulent time in America, and the film succeeds at emphasizing this critical period, all the while maintaining a fascinating story about two women. In Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on the bus to a white man. Thus began a landmark boycott led by the pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. America has never been the same.

Surrounding these politically charged events are well-to-do housewife Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek) and her family’s longtime maid, Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg). Miriam is the sophisticated wife of successful businessman Norman (Dwight Schultz), and they have two daughters; one is away at college, and the other is young Mary Catherine (Lexi Randall). Odessa and Lexi have a strong bond, as is so often the case in many of these stories. We are reminded of the 2011 Best Picture nominee The Help, which told a similar story.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Help, but The Long Walk Home is a more powerful film. It doesn’t shy away from the impact of Ms. Parks’ actions, and those affected by the boycott. The Help has powerful moments, but they are juxtaposed with comic relief (some of bordering on slapstick). Miriam’s brother-in-law Tunker (Dylan Baker) is a goon and ignorant racist, but this behavior was reflective of whites during this time. There is a distinct difference between evil and ignorance. The Help had an evil, unredeemable villain (Bryce Dallas Howard), who possessed every villainous trait short of fangs or the larger-than-life Disney personas (think Maleficent, Cruella de Vil). Howard is a great actress, but the character was over the top. The Help also scored Oscar nominations for Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, while Octavia Spencer won a well-deserved Supporting Actress Oscar.

Spacek and Goldberg were Oscar-worthy here as well. Spacek, who tries to understand the rationale of the boycott, begins to sympathize with Odessa. Goldberg (in one of her best performances) is quiet, tired, and weary of the long walks to and from work in the wake of the boycott. There are many great scenes with Spacek and Goldberg, but one standout moment occurs when Odessa tells Miriam she doesn’t want Miriam’s children to be afraid of her children. Odessa has cared for Miriam’s children when they were ill. Miriam wonders if she would return the favor.

Another of the film’s strengths is its examination of each woman’s family. Spacek’s husband seems sympathetic, but he’s bullied by the other racist men in town. When Spacek insists on driving Odessa to work, Norman gives her the cold shoulder. These scenes are realistic and tragic. A testament to Spacek’s wonderful performance is how her character evolves and changes throughout the film. She is outspoken in a time when women were to be seen and not heard. She reminds her husband she is educated and able to work if she treated without equality in their marriage. I wanted to cheer for her.

Meanwhile, Odessa’s family is struggling to adjust to their matriarch’s longer work hours. Her husband (Ving Rhames) is kind and patient, and her eldest daughter Selma Erika Alexander) is a teenager just wanting to be a teenager; she doesn’t understand the need for the boycott. Selma decides to take the bus one day, and her actions result is violent consequences for her younger brother. Odessa’s family finds their strength in God, each other, and community, and forgiveness is inclusive in their sources of strength.

The film builds to a suspenseful, realistic climax, and it’s tremendously moving. I wanted the film to continue. I wanted to know what became of these characters. Human communication, delivered with respect, conviction, and love, is invaluable. The characters portrayed as Spacek and Goldberg were ordinary characters with extraordinary characteristics.

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