Anyone who has seen documentary footage of the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott may have been struck by what a powerfully down-to-earth protest it was. Here was the epochal event of the American civil rights movement and it didn't involve sit-ins or marches, or anything overtly ''political.'' When the black citizens of Montgomery, spurred by the bravery of Rosa Parks, chose to stop riding the buses, they found a way of taking the prideful anger of protest and enfolding it directly into their daily lives. That's what gave the boycott its near-religious strength: By the very act of choosing to walk rather than ride, Montgomery blacks were saying, ''We're not asking for power. It already belongs to us.''
The Long Walk Home is a dramatization of those bitter and heroic months of struggle in other words, it has the sort of surefire liberal-message-movie subject matter that can easily turn preachy. The surprise of the film is how intelligent and moving it is. With a minimum of fuss, screenwriter John Cork and director Richard Pearce ease us into the lives of Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg), a quiet, unassuming maid who joins the boycott the day it's announced, and her employer, Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek), a pampered scion of the Montgomery upper-middle class who, acting out of a mixture of sympathy and self-interest, begins to help out by driving Odessa to work in the morning.
Married and with two kids, Miriam is a modern Southern belle, a housewife who doesn't have to do housework or even raise her children, since Odessa does it all for her. Odessa, who has a family of her own, has been working for the Thompsons for nine years, acting as a kind of surrogate mom, at once stern and loving. But Mr. and Mrs. Thompson don't quite register her as a person. Odessa is there to do Miriam's bidding not simply because that's what she's paid to do, but because, in her employers' eyes, it's her rightful ''place.''
Even in the mid-'50s, a subtle, unconscious suggestion of slavery lingers. And yet Miriam Thompson's attitude seems relatively benign. Raised in a racist society, she has bigoted manners but a good soul. It's when her husband, Norman (Dwight Schultz), and his drawling, segregationist brother (Dylan Baker, whose unctuous grin is unsettlingly close to Jimmy Carter's) are on-screen that racism comes leering out of its closet. When Norman learns that Miriam has joined the volunteer car pool for black workers, he's both terrified and outraged. If his associates find out, he could be drummed out of the business community.
The Long Walk Home shows us how the boycott became an epic battle of wills. The protest put an incredible economic squeeze on the city's transportation system, since the majority of the regular passengers were black. And the film has the moral savvy to recognize that what was ultimately being threatened wasn't just color-divided buses but an entire way of life. Naturally, those who were threatened lashed back. In several scenes, the movie captures, with a force that had me cringing, the ugliest aspect of the word ''nigger'': the way it is used to reduce black people to a level of utter nonhumanity.
Gradually, as the boycott progresses, the two women's lives become intertwined. We're meant to see the continuity between Odessa's fight for racial equality and Miriam's dawning feminist consciousness. Yet neither character is held up as a role model. They are both, in their different ways, blessedly ordinary. And so The Long Walk Home, while not a work of great depth or imagination, is able to show us how the nagging physical reality of the boycott the overwhelming inconvenience of it, for both blacks and whites worked its way into the texture of people's lives, changing those lives forever.
Both actresses are quite fine. The role of Odessa is somewhat underwritten, but Goldberg, playing her as a modest, God-fearing woman, acts with a deep-buried determination. If she'd been allowed to show some of her humor, the character might have soared. Spacek gives a beautifully modulated performance. Her Miriam is a mixture of girlish naivete and maternal instinct, and as the movie goes on, she comes to realize that the boycotters are fighting an entrenched old-boy power structure one that rules her, too. Her instinct begins to sway her actions, even if it means turning against her husband, her community, everything she has known.
When Miriam finally comes over to the cause of the boycotters, it's a vibrant, soul-stirring moment. The scene is presented as an emotional choice, not an ideological one (which is why it's convincing). And Odessa, understanding the sacrifice, cries even harder than Miriam does. In the end, The Long Walk Home isn't simply about whites transcending their own racism. It's about how blacks, in the midst of one of the most revolutionary episodes in American history, saw that not all their oppressors meant them harm. The true liberation was in realizing that decency could come from both sides. B+