“The Long Walk Home,” 25 years ago
Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1989, I was a bored fourteen-year-old with nothing to do, so it only made sense to wander over to a nearby street where some group from Hollywood was shooting a movie about the Montgomery Bus Boycott called The Long Walk Home. In a low-slung gray ranch-style house at the southern end of Thomas Avenue in Montgomery, a crew was set up to shoot a scene. My friend Heather and I got as close as we could to the scene, standing in the median of this prim-and-proper old upscale street, and waited for something to happen. That I recall, nothing ever did. We stood in the sun for hours, wanting to catch a glimpse of a movie star. The most exciting thing that happened that day was one of the grunt-work tech guys kept trying hit on Heather, who was thin, blonde and pretty, even though he was in college and we had told him she was fourteen.
That same summer, I was also involved in a Montgomery Little Theater production of “Mame.” I had followed my older brother, who was then a college freshman, into backstage theatrical work, mostly because he was my ride home from school; working on the productions beat sitting there doing my homework. After he graduated, he continued to invite me to work on the shows around town, which always needed free labor, and I was glad to get out of the house. I spent many of my evenings in the summer of ’89 in that former-church-turned-theater, listening to and only half-understanding the adult banter of the local community theater crowd.
One night, after the show, someone came charging into the dressing rooms and announced excitedly that the film crew was downtown and needed extras for a crowd scene on a late-night shoot. Though it was well past 10:00, we all – including me – rushed down there and were quickly snatched up, given haircuts and put into 1950s-era clothing. We would be part of a mob of white men, yelling at Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek during what would be the film’s final triumphant scene, in which the racists confront the boycott’s carpool but are forced to give up and meander off. We all stood in the alleyway on North Perry Street, and as the hours ticked by with nothing happening, my brother and I were way too aware that our mom and dad would be worried. But it was worth it to stay. When the scene got moving, we were stationed in the back of the white-male mob, shouting and raising our fists in faux anger as the determined-looking group of women sang their hymns defiantly until we peeled off and walked away. We had stood around for hours to do our brief bit of acting work, and I had gotten to see movie stars.
We weren’t done five minutes when my brother and I sprinted back to the costume trailer, tore off our old duds, asked for our vouchers for payment, and took off for home. We were going to be in big trouble! It was four o’clock in the morning, and our parents had been expecting us by about eleven. We got a pretty good tongue-lashing when we got home – at nineteen and fourteen, we were too big to spank – but we endured it, knowing if the chance came again, we would do the exact same thing.
But the story doesn’t end there. I went the next day to pick up our paychecks. The movie’s offices were located in the half-empty open-air Normandale Mall near our house, so I took both vouchers with me to get our respective $35 checks. (Back in the late 1980s, that wasn’t bad money.) I sat in the tiny lobby way longer than I thought I should have had to, when a woman came out and called a group of boys who were sitting there, too. When I didn’t budge, she looked at me and said, “You’re not coming?” I said no, I was just waiting on my check. She retorted quickly, “Come audition while you’re waiting. By the time you’re done, your check will be ready.” Audition . . . ? For what?
We were given scripts and put into two groups of three to audition for the scene in the movie when three white teenage boys torment and then assault a black teenage girl who rides the bus alone. The casting woman sat stone-faced in a chair, playing the teenage girl, while we pretended to bully her and feigned pre-Civil Rights meanness. I could tell from watching the situation that my group wasn’t going to be picked. Back then I was a little perturbed when I didn’t get the part, feeling like she had wasted my time. Looking back at it today, I’m kind of glad that I was never in a major Hollywood motion picture playing a racist who spouts the N-word about fifty times in five minutes then slaps a girl around in broad daylight.
When I got home, my brother asked me what took so long, and I told him that I had been auditioning for a bigger role— and he was pissed! As a freshman theater major, that could have been a big deal for him, he told me. You should have gone up there yourself to get your check, I replied, then you would have been sitting there, too. He wasn’t fond of that answer either, but what was I going to do? Truthfully, at nineteen, he was probably too old for the part. The boys had been closer to my age.
That tiny experience was my one brush with the film industry. Even though I was a local-yokel teenager, the whole to-do looked like a big joke to me: lots of standing around, nobody looked like they were doing anything. I also remember the people of Montgomery getting really frustrated with the film crew because they wanted to shut down major streets downtown to film various scenes. Montgomery is the state capitol and the home of the state courts and federal government offices; you can’t just close downtown! Long-term, the last laugh was probably on us, since only two other movie crews have stationed themselves anywhere near here: The Grass Harp in the mid-1990s and Big Fish in the early 2000s. Some other Deep Southern states give tax breaks to filmmakers . . .
Today, when I watch The Long Walk Home, it seems very dated, with a 1980s sensibility, and a little too didactic in nature, like it’s trying too hard. When I watch it now, the narrative’s efforts at establishing depth-of-character fail, and the contradictions between the lives of the black and white families come off as forced. When I watch that bullying scene that I might have been in, the acting is pretty unimpressive, which takes away from the power of the scene.
Frankly, The Long Walk Home is a mediocre movie, in my current opinion . . . However, along with 1988’s Mississippi Burning, it was among the first mainstream Hollywood movies to deal dramatically with the real events of the movement. Of course, the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman came out in 1974, but movies that followed The Long Walk Home were: 1996’s Ghosts of Mississippi, then Malcolm X and Selma, Lord, Selma both in 1999. Though it’s not one of the finest films ever made, The Long Walk Home does take its place in the genre. And you know what else? I was in it.