It happens often: A little independent movie gets lost in the shuffle, buried by attention-grabbing major studio releases. The little movie resurfaces briefly on videocassette and TV. End of story. But not in the case of The Long Walk Home. Back in December, independent distributor Miramax Films (The Grifters) opened the movie, a story about the impact of the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott on two families, one black, one white. Its stars, Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg, dutifully worked the press, hoping for attention for the movie's message and maybe some Academy Award nominations. But Miramax's hopes were dashed when the L.A. Times ran a damaging story by ex-Newsweek civil rights correspondent Karl Fleming, who challenged the film's authenticity. The same paper's Peter Rainer then wrote a negative review accompanied by a photo of Spacek driving Goldberg in a '50s car: The headline read ''Driving Miss Whoopi.'' Never mind that Rosa Parks, the woman who had sparked the Montgomery boycott, lent her support to the movie by attending its Century City premiere.
So no Oscar nominations, and the newspaper articles apparently gave the impression that the film was yet another retread of the black experience from a white point of view, like Driving Miss Daisy or Mississippi Burning, even though the script by John Cork was based on his family's and friends' experiences in Montgomery. Walk foundered at the box office and was finally pulled out of release. ''Lightning doesn't strike twice,'' says director Richard Pearce. ''Lightning struck Driving Miss Daisy.''
Then Miramax president Harvey Weinstein decided to grab the lightning. ''I love this movie,'' he says. ''This is for every filmmaker who ever had a film lost that was great.'' He figures he has already sunk $1.5 million into the film, and will spend some $2.5 million more to reopen it on 250 screens in 50 markets on March 22, complete with sizable TV ad buys. This time Miramax hopes to capitalize on Goldberg's Oscar nomination for Ghost and her appearance on Barbara Walters' show on March 25. ''It's make or break time,'' adds marketing chief Russell Schwartz.
''Miramax has a wonderful underdog street-fighting mentality,'' says Pearce. Indeed, 11 days later it fought the L.A. Times in three opinion pieces countering Fleming's commentary. It turns out Fleming hadn't covered the boycott, but had been writing about the civil rights movement for a North Carolina paper. Boycott reporter Ray Jenkins testified to the film's general accuracy (as did Parks) and it has won support from black organizations. Even Coretta Scott King sent a letter that read in part: ''The Long Walk Home is a powerful and compelling drama that faithfully captures the spirit of a watershed event in U.S. history.'' Paul Brock, head of the NAACP Hollywood task force, confesses he went to see Walk reluctantly and was pleasantly surprised. ''Saying it was another Mississippi Burning hurt,'' he says. ''No one wanted to support it. As black groups start to refute that image it will help relaunch the film.''
Most distributors admire Weinstein's gutsiness more than his acumen. ''The movie's heart is in the right place,'' says distributor Bingham Ray. ''But audiences don't want to see earnest kitchen sink movies.'' Weinstein remains convinced that this time they'll find The Long Walk Home. ''I think everyone wants a second chance to do things over in their own life. You can do so much better.''