The Long Walk Home (1990)
Director: Richard Pearce.
Starring: Sissy Spacek
(Miriam Thompson, Whoopi Goldberg (Odessa Cotter), Dwight Schultz (Norman
Thompson), Ving Rhames (Herbert Cotter), Dylan Baker (Tucker Thompson), Erika
Alexander (Selma Cotter), Lexi Randall (Mary Catherine), Richard Habersham
(Theodore Cotter), Jason Weaver (Franklin Cotter), Crystal Robbins (Sara
Thompson), Cherene Snow (Claudia). .
Whoopi Goldberg plays a domestic worker for social Sissy Spacek who, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, walks the nine miles to her job and back rather than ride the segregated buses. When Spacek learns of Odessa's sacrifice for the cause, she volunteers rides for the boycotters. This, to be sure, wins her the wrath of the racist White Citizens' Council.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
The black women pay the money in the front of the bus then enter through the rear door so they can sit in the back of the bus.
Montgomery, Alabama 1955. The narrator Mary Catherine Thompson introduces her family maid, a black woman named Odessa Cotter. At the time of the start of the story, the narrator was just a little girl of seven years of age. The mother, Mrs. Miriam Thompson, drops Odessa off with the three girls at a park. They play on the swings. While the maid sets out the picnic luncheon for the girls, a policeman stops his motor scooter and comes over to speak with the maid. He asks Odessa what she is doing here. The park is for whites only. He says that niggers are not allowed in the park. Odessa and the girls have to leave.
Miriam is furious when she learns about what happened. She calls Commissioner Sellers and reads him the riot act that one of his policemen was rude and her daughters out of the park. Soon enough Miriam has the policeman apologize to Odessa. He says later to Mrs. Thompson that he regrets the whole thing happened in the first place.
Her brother-in-law Tucker tells Miriam and her husband that Miriam shouldn't have forced a white policeman to apologize to a nigger. That's just wrong, he says.
In a way a war was about to start in Montgomery, the cradle of the confederacy. It began on a warm summer day, says Mary Catherine. Odessa's boys come in with a flyer. Rosa Parks has been thrown into jail for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Therefore, they are asking the negroes to stay off the buses. They are to take a cab or walk.
The whole Odessa family gets together for dinner. There is Selma the daughter, Herbert the father, and the two boys, the older Theodore and the younger Franklin.
The buses start out early in the morning when it is still dark. One bus passes by Odessa's place completely empty of passengers.
Odessa telephones Mrs. Thompson that she is going to be awfully late to work because of the bus boycott. Mrs. Thompson says she will pick her up in about an hour. Odessa walks home. It's a long way. She sits down as soon as she comes in. Then she has to go to a mass meeting at the church.
They meet at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church which is close to the capitol building in downtown Montgomery. They listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are so many people that they have to stand outside of the church and listen.
The next day Odessa walks to work. She walks all the way across town. She arrives at work already very tired. She tells her husband that she is going to ask for some days off. Her hubby says she can always take the bus., but then he just laughs at the very idea of it. .
Mrs. Thompson says she can pick Odessa up on Tuesdays and Fridays, but the other days she will have to get to work by herself. Mama tells Mary Catherine not to tell her father that she is driving Odessa to work on some days.
It's Christmas Eve. You don't still believe in Santa Claus, do you, asks Sara of Mary Catherine. She did, but she now says no. Mary Catherine is upset that there is no Santa Claus. The white children receive a lot of presents. The whole living room is filled with presents.
Odessa arrives on Christmas day. Claudia is coming to help Odessa in the kitchen. At the dinner, the table talks turns to the ads the coloreds put in the paper asking that their demands be met. Tucker says this is just a test. Norman says they should play the issue down and let them sit where they want. Tucker says he won't stand for the niggers going around town saying how they won on the bus issue. Mrs. Thompson's mother says it's just communism. These niggers, she says, just want too much and they're not willing to work for it.
Norman gives the maids checks for Christmas. He asks Odessa how she gets to work. She tells him that she gets a ride where she can and sometimes she has to walk. Odessa has been with them for nine years. Tucker wants to make sure that his brother doesn't give in to the blacks.
When Odessa gets home the family gives her some new clothes to go to church in.
Miriam finds the present from Odessa to Mary Catherine still wrapped and unopened. She puts it back where she found it. Selma went down to see her friend Leticia. Big brother Theodore rushes after her. He knows she's fixing to use the bus. Sure enough, Selma gets on the bus. Her brother sees her get on the back of the bus. He rushes back home and gets some money to take a taxi.
Three young white fellows get on the bus and start taunting Selma. They ask her if she is from out of town. They tell her: If you haven't heard, niggers quit riding the bus. Selma gets off the bus quickly. The bus driver throws the three fellows off the bus for causing problems. Selma runs to the park for a drink. The fellows catch her and start roughing her up. They chase her. They call her a nigger bitch. Her brother arrives via a taxi. He knocks one of the white guys down. The white guy gets up and socks Theodore, knocking him to the ground. A black man chases off the three fellows.
When she gets home in the evening and sees the condition of her son's face, Odessa is furious with her daughter. But she soon checks her anger, as she can see her daughter feels guilty about what she did.. Miriam comes to pick Odessa up. She drives by the lot where the carpools are being organized to help blacks get to work.
The white women talk about some white women driving some of the blacks around town. One woman says Miriam is just as bad for picking up Odessa. Day 49 of the bus boycott. Negotiations have been called off for the time being. Norman and Tucker are going together to go to a meeting of the Citizens' Council. Miriam talks to her husband and asks him why. He says the whole think has gotten out of hand. It's either join this group or the Klan. She scolds him and he gets mad, saying he will join any God damned group he pleases.
Norm and Tucker go the the gymnasium where the meeting is being held.
News spreads through the black congregation. They just bombed Rev. King's house. King was not hurt.
Miriam watches her maids at work. Later she drives by King's house and sees some of the windows boarded up.
Norman is home sick. He asks his wife just how does Odessa get to work. Miriam says she picks her up twice a week. He gets extremely angry and scolds his wife for giving Odessa a ride. Norman insists that she let Odessa walks five days a week instead of just three. Miriam is upset at this turn of events. Norman apologizes to her for being so upset. He sits her down and explains to her calmly how she was doing the wrong thing. They can never get to really know the blacks. It's like cats and dogs, two different species. Then he says it could be dangerous for Miriam to drive Odessa because some whites are ready to do violent things.
Odessa arrives. She asks Mrs. Thompson why she won't drive her anymore. Odessa says her husband found out and forbids her to drive her. Odessa now tells Miriam that she has to quit. Miriam says Norman just grew up under segregation and has always accepted it. She also says a lot of the whites are scared. Odessa asks Miriam a good question: "What's scaring you, Mrs. Thompson? Who you are or who Mr. Thompson wants you to be?"
Miriam tells her husband that Odessa had to quit. She asks him why he is so intent on butting in on how she runs the household? The Miriam says she will get her own job. After all, she has a college degree. And the money will be hers to do with as she pleases, even to give it all to Dr. King and his cause. Do you really care if I drive Odessa to work? she asks.
Norman starts packing to move to the den. Miriam tells him she thinks she is doing what she thinks is right.
Then next day she picks up Odessa and has her sit in the front with her. A car follows them. Miriam asks how that car pool works and Odessa tells her. Odessa warns her of the dangers facing her if she volunteers for the carpool. After all, the movement will survive, if she doesn't volunteer.
The next day Miriam picks up three black women to take them downtown. She works five or six days a week for the carpool. Her husband doesn't know. He thinks she just drives Odessa.
Tucker takes his brother to see Miriam volunteering for the carpool. Norman wants to go over there and ball her out, but Tucker and some of his white friends go over instead. Tucker says she shouldn't be here. It's none of your business, she says. He says she should leave. She refuses. So he has to tell her that about 150 white men are going to be coming down here to shut the lot down by force. Odessa, we've got to go, Miriam says. A white man tells her she is not driving her nigger maid out of here. He breaks her window. He breaks another window of the car. Tucker tells Miriam that she lost this one, so let's go. Go to hell, Tucker, you ignorant son of a bitch, Miriam snaps. He slaps Miriam across the face and Norman hits his brother in the face. Tucker gets his brother down, but another man pulls him off his brother.
The white men threaten the black women, shouting: "Walk, nigger, walk!" Odessa walks toward the men and gets cursed out. The women start singing. They hold hands and include Miriam in their protest.
The narrator says: "It would be years before I understood what standing in that line meant to my mother. And as I grew older, to me. 50,000 boycotted the buses in Montgomery. I knew one. Her name was Odessa Cotter."
"On December 20, 1956, under Supreme Court order, the Negro citizens of Montgomery, for the first time in history, rode on city buses and sat where they wanted. The boycott had been won. Within weeks, four Negro churches and two homes were bombed. But a movement had begun. Montgomery was only the beginning, just the first step. . ."
Good movie and one that moved me even though I know all about Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Average people standing up for what they think is right and willing to risk life and limb to make a difference. Get enough of them together and you have a movement. The black Odessa was a brave woman and the white Miriam was a brave woman and they both risked possible death to do what was right. God bless those who work in the cause of righteousness and against injustice. And may the Lord punish those who strive for the continuance of hate and division. Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek were both terrific in their roles. It was so odd to see Whoopi acting so damn seriously.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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