A Story Of Civil Wrongs And Eventual Repentance

Posted: August 24, 1997

George Corley Wallace, currently bedridden and repentant, is probably the most famous Southern governor of the 1960s. His opposition to equal rights for the black citizens of his native Alabama made him nationally notorious.

For viewers too young to remember his nefarious influence, the TNT telemovie George Wallace is a video history lesson. Here is Wallace in all his complexity: eloquent on campaign platforms, conniving in political strategy, serpentine in character.

George Wallace is marred by a self-inflicted wound that makes it misleading in part. The main black character did not exist in real life, and his deceiving depiction in his most dramatic fictitious scene with Wallace leaves this show vulnerable to a justified objection from Wallace and his family.

Other than that, viewers will probably find few nits to pick with George Wallace, a four-hour, two-part mini-series being shown at 8 p.m. today and Tuesday. In a demanding title role that requires his presence is almost every scene, Gary Sinise is skillful and solid.

An unexpected strength of George Wallace is its compelling and often touching peeks into his private life. Mare Winningham is sweet as his first wife, Lurleen, and Angelina Jolie is sexy as his second, Cornelia.

Based on Marshall Frady's biography, Wallace, with a script by Frady and Paul Monash, the mini-series concentrates on its protagonist throughout. For example, no actor portrays Wallace's most courageous and successful foe, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The real Dr. King is seen only once, in a piece of news footage, although eloquent examples of his oratory are often heard, including two sentences that were truer than anything Wallace ever said during their confrontations: ``Segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama. No lie can live forever.''

Hopscotching back and forth in time, George Wallace begins on May 15, 1972, the day that Wallace, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, was shot and crippled in Laurel, Md., by Arthur Bremer, played by Scott Brantley. Bremer is seen only fleetingly, however, and the show does not delve into his motive.

After the gunfire, the show flashes back to the 1955 inaugural ball of Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom, here played as large as he was in life by Joe Don Baker. Wallace, a state circuit judge at that time, was his campaign manager and political protege. They were both populists, dedicated to helping poor folks. Folsom was never a race-baiter and, back then, neither was Wallace.

It is at the inaugural ball that Wallace meets the show's only prominent black character, Archie Weathers, stolidly portrayed by Clarence Williams 3d. Weathers, a convicted murderer who killed a man who was ``messin' with my wife,'' is a prison trustee working as a servant in the governor's mansion, first for Folsom and later for Wallace. Weathers has a father who is murdered by two Ku Klux Klansmen and a younger brother who urges him to kill Wallace.

None of that is true. A graphic at the end of the closing credits says, ``The character Archie was created for dramatic purposes to reflect a viewpoint concerning this turbulent period of American history.'' Whatever that verbiage is supposed to mean, Archie Weathers and his alleged actions add up to nothing better than a mistake, a waste of time that could have been better devoted to exploring the real events of Wallace's life.

In 1958, Wallace made a Faustian bargain that changed his life and propelled him toward the notoriety indelibly attached to him.

Running for governor to succeed Folsom, Wallace denounced the Klan and received the support of the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. After he lost to John Patterson, who promised voters that he would never allow ``mongrel mixing of the races'' in any way at any time, Wallace tells his aides on this show:

``I know now you all been right about this race thing. Big Jim just never caught on to that. Me and Big Jim, we over with. . . . I just let myself get out-niggered. I'm never gonna get out-niggered again.''

Inaugurated in 1963 for the first of his five terms as governor, Wallace made his infamous vow: ``I draw the line in the dust. I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!'' Only a few months later, he ``stood in the schoolhouse door'' at the University of Alabama, trying to block the admission of its first two black students, James Hood and Vivian Malone (Bobby Kirby and Ketema Nelson).

That historic confrontation - in which U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (Mark Valley and Ron Perkins) locked legal horns with Wallace - arches over the conclusion of tonight's opening episode and the beginning of the Tuesday finale.

That episode includes the most impressive work by Baker and Jolie.

Hobbling heavily on a crutch as he depicts Folsom with a broken foot, Baker unloads wrath on Wallace while recalling good old days and bad new ones:

``You wudn't any race-baiter back then. Me and you was populists together. Times got ugly, though, and you got scared you'd lose that election. You let loose all of them low dogs.''

The big moment for Jolie, the daughter of actor Jon Voight, comes when Wallace, whose five gunshot wounds ended his sex life, suspects that the comely Cornelia is unfaithful to him and orders her out of his mansion in 1974.

Reminding him that she threw her body atop his to protect him from further damage after Bremer's bullets cut him down, she witheringly analyzes him:

``You won't let me keep loving you, because you won't trust that. It's like you wish I were playing around. Anger, fighting and hatred, those old low, mean fevers, they've finally burned out everything else that was inside of you. It's all you're left with now, it's all you feel now.''

These peaks of performance tower high enough to overshadow George Wallace's low point, the egregious icepick scene.

On the night in 1965 after Dr. King and his followers were beaten by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Wallace goes into the kitchen of the mansion and asks Archie to bring him a glass of buttermilk. As the governor sits sipping, Archie reaches into a kitchen drawer and extracts an icepick. While indecision wrenches his face, he contemplates killing Wallace in his chair.

The scene ends with Wallace leaving the kitchen, while Archie hides the unused icepick behind his back.

In real life, nothing like that ever took place. Wallace and his family bitterly believe that Archie is based on Eddie Holcey, a paroled prisoner who became Wallace's longtime aide and good friend. ``They say my best friend wanted to kill me with with an icepick,'' the 78-year-old Wallace told the New York Times in February. ``The movie's false.''

The explanation supplied by executive producer Mark Carliner is wrongheaded and unpersuasive. ``The icepick scene is about anger and resentment,'' Carliner said. ``In our film, the black voice is represented by this character.''

In reality, the dominant ``black voice'' in Alabama at this time was that of Dr. King, who spoke always of nonviolence, never about using an icepick to settle old scores. Beyond misrepresenting the association of Wallace with his closest black friend, the icepick scene does worse: Instead of highlighting the prevailing nonviolence of the civil rights movement in Alabama, it reaches for a cheap and untruthful thrill.

The climactic scene in George Wallace is deeply moving: In 1974, he really did visit the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, an epicenter of the civil rights movement, and apologized to the congregation for the way he had treated black people.

If only Archie weren't cluttering up this otherwise admirable telemovie. As a longtime expert on Alabama politics, Ted Bryant of the Birmingham Post-Herald, said so accurately about this show and Wallace, ``If you want to make this guy look bad, you don't have to dream up stuff to do it.''

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