Film/Television: Lost Highways
Reviewed by Allen Tullos
Vol. 22, No. 2, 2000 pp. 20-22
“George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” a film in The American Experience series for the Public Broadcasting Service. Produced and directed by Daniel McCabe and Paul Stekler for WGBH, Boston. Written by McCabe, Stekler, and Steve Fayer. Executive Producer Margaret Drain. Based in part on The Politics of Rage by Dan T. Carter. 180 minutes.
George Wallace, white reaction’s pit bull in the desegregation and voting rights battles of the 1950s and 60s. was–in his prime–a corrupt, power-obsessed governor who cultivated a climate of terror, intimidation, and murderous violence. Bands played “Dixie,” rebel flags waved, Klansmen blew up children and shot “agitators,” police chiefs unleashed dogs and fire hoses, and state troopers broke the heads but not the spirits of demonstrators. There was, Martin Luther King Jr. concluded, “blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.”
By the 1970s, Wallace had taught many Americans to speak his language in other words. As perennial chieftain of Alabama and thwarted candidate for president, Wallace abetted a changing political mood, wielding a coded language of backlash against “liberal” federal judges, coddled criminals, affirmative action initiatives, government safety nets, anti-nuclear protesters, women’s-libbers, gays, and foreigners. Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich, Perot, Helms, Bush, Lott, and Delay are among the most well-known names that owe a debt to our downhome tactician of divisive swill. In retreat on issues ranging from welfare reform to national health care, Clinton Democrats have also voiced phrases from the Wallace lexicon. Among national politicos, only Pat Buchanan (“I don’t think the Governor owes anyone an apology”) publicly and proudly acknowledges the legacy.
Had not a would-be assassin’s attack in 1972 left paralysis and painkillers as constant companions, thickening his tongue and slowing his wit, George Wallace might have become the presidential spoiler he intended. Kingmaker for an election thrown into the House. Or perhaps an extended, rancid career in public bullying and logjamming such as that fashioned by Jesse Helms. Or, chief viper in the talk radio nest. His poisonous, slashing style anticipated this, too.
On Easter Sunday and Monday nights this April, PBS’s The American Experience featured a television rendering of the life and meaning of George Wallace. In Part One, the miter-producer team of Steve Fayer, Daniel McCabe, and Paul Stekler were rewarded when they stack close to the painstaking research and main themes of Dan T. Carter’s 1995 book The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (now in a revised edition from Louisiana State University Press). With the second episode, however, as filmmakers and historian seemed to part company. “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire” turned toward the simplifications of an evangelical conversion narrative.
In slighting our need for a realistic social memory of Alabama and America’s violent experience with Wallace, “George Wallace” opts for a limiting biographical form that comes to center too exclusively upon the tale of an individual’s ruthless rise, prideful fall, and redemptive suffering. As the filmmakers lose their sense of historical proportion and perspective, we lose sight (or never see) many who should be key witnesses throughout–the persons most directly and lastingly affected by Wallace’s reign of white terror. After three hours, the film arrives at its violin-stained ending, having squandered too much time tracing the daily movements of batty gunman Arthur Bremer, having shown the Maryland shooting over and over and over and over, and having milked for emotional effect the pathetic figure of a badly aging, addled, and tormented Wallace.
Also lost in “George Wallace,” to the point of withholding evidence, is the important work of Professor Carter’s follow-up book From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994 (Louisiana State University Press, 1996) which traces Wallace’s legacy upon political strategy and rhetoric in our supposed post-civil rights era Video clips of
present-day officeholders and popular pundits echoing Wallace-style phrases would reveal that his nasty ghost remains with us. Not making these connections is a critical omission consistent with the filmmakers’ naive political balancing act: is The Governor to be reviled as a racial opportunist or admired for sticking-up for states’ rights against an overweening big government? No wonder a huge majority of PBS viewers (see http://www.pbs.org wgbh/amex/wallace/sfeature/poll_results.html apparently came away believing that George Wallace’s lasting impact on American politics was “positive.”
The television documentary gets off on a fine footing, establishing the situation of sustained agricultural collapse in Wallace’s hometown of tiny Clio (namesake of the muse of history), Alabama, during the time of his childhood. Born in 1919 to a “poor, but not desperately poor” family, George Wallace was the son of a father with a reputation as a quick-tempered, alcoholic failure and a mother who sought for her family the civilizing influences of small town life. Young George, as Professor Carter points out in a key insight, forged an early identity upon the “twin anvils of resentment and an almost pathetic search for affection and respect.” At age fourteen, standing where Jeff Davis had once taken his presidential oath, Wallace vowed one day to become governor. Already, he had spent years soaking up political lessons from Barbour County, a practice-ground that had produced five governors.
Technically well-edited from material that took years to acquire, “George Wallace” moves quickly with the commentary of family members, long-time journalists who covered the campaigns and confrontations, aging former cronies, a precious few past opponents from the streets and courtrooms, and historian Carter. Congressman John Lewis and Selma civil rights attorney J. L Chestnut offer keen firsthand perspectives. The stars of both of these men continued to rise after Wallace’s flared and crashed. In compelling style, Chestnut recalls Wallace’s early career under the influence of the racially moderate Governor Big Jim Folsom. The young circuit judge proved surprisingly sympathetic to underdog blacks and whites, especially in cases pitting them against Big Mule attorneys from Birmingham. Despite Wallace’s formal courtesy of insisting that Chestnut and his clients be addressed as “Mr.” by anyone practicing in his courtroom, the film leaves unnoted and unanswered the deeper issue of whether Wallace ever overcame his core belief–widely shared by his generation of white Southerners–that African Americans were a separate, inferior race.
Using archival photographs and broadcast footage to striking effect, “George Wallace” has to labor against a miasma of vapid narration read by the apparently sleep-deprived actor Randy Quaid. Non-judgmental matter-of-factness, if this is the intended effect, conveys a lack of urgency, as if nothing much was, or remains, at stake. All along, the images are telling another story.
The film does outstanding work revisiting 1958, that watershed year in George Wallace’s political life, the time of his first defeat and of his “faustian bargain.” It came in the Democratic race for Alabama’s governorship, when, badly misjudging the climate since the Brown decision and the Montgomery bus boycott, the “lightin’ little judge” ran as a “responsible segregationist.” Wallace’s opponent, attorney general John Patterson, was a vicious racist who had the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Wallace had spoken out against the KKK and refused its support, receiving instead the NAACP’s endorsement. Wallace lost heavily and felt the sting deeply. He infamously vowed never to be “out-niggered” again.
Soon Wallace turned to the demonizing of former friend, federal judge Frank Johnson, and the cocky posturings of chip-on-the-shoulder resistance that would win the votes of white Alabamians and stir a climate of violence. In 1963, his theatrical stand in the schoolhouse door, temporarily denying the admission of two black students under the guise of resistance to the tyranny of the “Central Government,” brought him national notice. Not mentioned is that the day following Wallace’s “stand,” Medgar Evers was murdered outside his home in Mississippi.
Through speaking trips and media appearances– and we are made to feel the high drama and intense feelings of these rallies–as Wallace explored presidential politics, he tapped into and aggravated anti-black resentment as well as the generalized anger of blue collar voters in and outside the South who felt alienated from both political parties and thwarted in their efforts to realize American Dream mobility. Bushel baskets of small contributions rolled in. From Florida to Michigan, California to Maryland, George Wallace hauled the invective.
For those who don’t remember or who are too young to know, major money for Wallace’s forays came through graft and kickback schemes that were run out of the Alabama governor’s office by brother Gerald and henchman Seymore Trammell (“I was George Wallace’s hatchet man and son of a bitch”). This is an extraordinary moment in the film, worthy of the best of “Sixty Minutes.”
With the no-doubt unintended effect of suggesting that Wallace’s menace and ensuing mayhem might, in hindsight, be laughed-off like a good-ol’-boy joke, “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire” takes part of its title, and its misguided musical leitmotif from a wacky, Hank Williams party-hearty song. When played as background to the all-too-serious events of the freedom struggle years, the result is trivializing. The song proves inspired only once, when the surreal truly breaks through–as General Curtis (“Bombs Away”) LeMay, Wallace’s choice for vice-president in the 1968 campaign, is pressing his pro-nuclear, Dr. Strangelove option. As for the film’s persistent, grating, original score, imagine soured Creedence with an occasional shuffle into the spasms of a distracted fiddle band. And, of course, violins near the end of the trail leading to forgiveness. Hank’s “Lost Highway” would have more tragically evoked George and most of the white South in the twentieth century.
“George Wallace,” the film, begins to lose its overall direction about halfway through. Part One ends with nothing like Birmingham’s Fred Shuttlesworth saying: “Governor Wallace caused a lot of suffering, and a lot of misery, and I believe a lot of deaths.” No, Reverend Shuttlesworth is made to say that early and speedily and then step aside. Instead, as the backlash politics of rage rolls across the United States in the late 1960s, and as Wallace trots to get in front of it, we get the monotonal Quaid gathering himself to read the script: “In the growing chaos of violence, protest, and rising crime, millions of Americans would come to believe that one man stood against the forces tearing the country apart.” This may work as a teasing, tune-in-next-time call for a hero, but it dismisses the purposes of millions of other Americans’ protests on campuses and in the streets.
Part Two of “George Wallace” moves more toward what we expect from AE’s Biography than what we need from PBS’s American Experience. The further into the film we go, an as-told-to story of pain, personal scandal, and purgatory takes over. Selective forgetfulness and the entropy of the forgiveness narrative give the slip to more troubling social memory. The conclusion is a missed opportunity for assessing–and mourning–the lengthy damage of the Wallace phenomenon, for examining the shifting tides of current racism, and for weighing the implications of Wallacism for our present moment. According to a Southern Poverty Law Center survey, Wallace’s Alabama, mired for decades in racial obsession, now counts more hate groups than any other state. Is this coincidence or an instance of fruit falling near the tree? The film might have inquired.
In “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire” the filmmakers end up letting the subject call the parting shots. But when measured by Clio’s broader arc, how much does it matter that George Wallace ultimately found, or returned to, his mythical “true self’?
Allen Tullos is editor of Southern Changes