Color of Justice

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, September 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Color of Justice


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


The best thing about the Turner Network's George Wallace is actor Gary Sinise's performance as the irascible Alabama governor. Sinise not only manages to sound like Wallace, but he captures the controversial politician's quick, feisty movements -- his famous pugnacious attitude honed during years as a bantamweight amateur boxer. Viewers of this memorable film are likely to come away remembering Sinise as Wallace more than they do Wallace as Wallace.

Marshall Frady, who covered Wallace in Alabama in the 1960s for Newsweek and whose biography of Wallace has gone through four editions since it was published in 1968, cowrote the teleplay with Paul Monash. The movie opens with the assassination attempt on the governor's life in Laurel, Md., during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Wallace was upsetting the powers-that-be in the Democratic Party -- Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern -- in primary after primary. Frady and Monash use flashbacks to tell the story of the governor's rise to fame in Alabama politics, his emergence as a national figure and his role as spoiler in American politics in the 1960s and early 1970s.

As a young, ambitious politician, Wallace came under the influence of Alabama Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom, a larger-than-life good ol' boy played with a big heart by actor Joe Don Baker (who played the axe-handle wielding sheriff in Walking Tall). Folsom warns the young Wallace that a governor sometimes has to "stroke" the angel in the people to ward off demons. Blacks as well as whites are citizens of the state, Folsom reminds Wallace, who runs as a racial moderate during his first campaign for the office of Alabama chief executive. When he loses to an out-and-out racist, Wallace vows never to be "out-segged" again.

And he wasn't, at least for a while. The infamous scene where Wallace stood in front of the doors at the University of Alabama registrar's office to prevent two black students from enrolling are rendered in black and white (as are other historical scenes in the movie) to suggest newsreels.

Sinise's fine performance is complemented by that of Mare Winningham as the governor's first wife, Lurleen, the love of Wallace's life. Winningham conveys that gentle woman's bewilderment at the couple's rise from the working-class background of rural Barbour County -- and her deep attachment to that life -- and her ability to rise to the occasion of being an ambitious man's wife.

The variety of Southern accents required by the characters aren't mangled, as they are so often by Hollywood. George Wallace was directed by John Frankenheimer, whose works include such classics as The Manchurian Candidate. The film concentrates much on Wallace's racist appeal, which no doubt was part of his attraction to all too many. But the film fails to adequately explore Wallace's attractiveness to voters genuinely fed up with the pointy-headed intellectuals, the Washington bureaucrats and the Ivy-League academics the governor constantly pilloried and ridiculed in his campaigns.

The big chip on Wallace's shoulder wasn't simply race. He latched on to a deep resentment among American voters carrying similar chips and who believed control of their own lives had been usurped by others who wanted to tell them how to live.

George Wallace is one of two made-for-TV films that tackle the race issue head on and deal with it remarkably well. …

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