Shortly after I was transferred to the South to report on desegregation for the weekly Life magazine, I heard a story. It concerned a young black woman who had just been hired as a maid in a wealthy white household. After her first day at work, she returned home, and her family crowded around. They knew almost nothing about how white people lived — so wide was the gap between the races — and they were intensely curious.
They bombarded the young woman with questions: What did the house look like? What did they eat? And especially, what did they talk about? She looked at her family and answered with one word: ”Us.”
I was reminded of that story as I watched The Long Walk Home, a new movie about the famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the mid-1950s. I covered the boycott, and I wanted to see how badly the film had distorted this watershed event. I had few expectations. The last movie I saw based on modern Southern history was Mississippi Burning, an infuriating and fraudulent tale of the murder of three young civil rights workers.
Imagine my surprise when The Long Walk Home turned out to be brilliant, touching, and authentic. Whoopi Goldberg plays a maid named Odessa Cotter; Sissy Spacek is her upper-middle-class employer, Miriam Thompson. It is December 1955. Tired of crowding into the back of city buses and being sassed by redneck drivers, Montgomery blacks decide not to ride anymore. In this atmosphere of community tension, the movie explores the shifting relationship between the two women, the restrained militancy of one and the blossoming conscience of the other.
But of course the word ”blacks” is never heard. Depending on how polite a white Alabamian of that time wanted to be, black people were referred to as Negroes, coloreds, nigras, niggers. They were also, in author Ralph Ellison’s memorable term, ”invisible.” At Christmas dinner in the film’s elegant white home, with relatives around the table, conversation turns to the boycott and what ”they” really want. While Odessa is in the dining room serving, one mother-in-law delivers a sermon on ”niggers.” Miriam and her husband look vaguely uncomfortable, but say nothing. Odessa is impassive. It is a chilling moment; I sat through many like it during my four years in the South.