Life And Art

George Wallace


George Wallace
Part One, Sunday, Aug. 24, Part Two, Tuesday, Aug. 26; 8 p.m. EDT; TNT

(Note: “Life and Art” is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts it is ostensibly based on.)

George Wallace, TNT’s biopic about the former Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate, begins and ends with disclaimers. The opening statement says that characters and dialogue have been created or altered for “dramatic purposes.” The closing statement says that one of the central characters, Archie, Wallace’s black servant, “was created to reflect a viewpoint concerning this turbulent period of American history.”

Besides these acknowledged fabrications, how far has director John Frankenheimer’s TV movie strayed from the truth? Factually, it seems, not all that much–at least not by the standards of docudrama, where synthesized characters and invented dialogue are routine. But in its selection of material to include and exclude–and in its interpretation–George Wallace operates with a pretty free hand.

The film portrays the fervent opponent of the civil rights movement as a thoroughgoing bigot. As Frankenheimer told the Los Angeles Times, “What we’re doing is the story of a racist.” To some, such as Stephan Lesher, who wrote the authorized biography George Wallace: American Populist, that interpretation is crude. Lesher says in the Weekly Standard that “viewers without prior knowledge likely will leave the film believing that Wallace began and ended with racism”–and fail to learn about how “Wallace helped set the political agenda that dominates Congress and the White House today.” The film also does little to suggest what other historians believe: that Wallace was a canny opportunist who embraced racist rhetoric when it was politically advantageous and jettisoned it when it wasn’t.

To recount Wallace’s famous civil rights battles, the film uses facts that are more or less accurate (though it includes two major fictionalizations along the way). We see Wallace (Gary Sinise) lose his first bid for governor in 1958 to an opponent who capitalized on segregationist themes and racist rhetoric. Wallace then declares to his aides, “I’m not going to be out-niggered” again. Did he really say this? Wallace denies it. But his first biographer, Marshall Frady, who co-wrote the teleplay, reported the remark in his book Wallace; and Emory professor Dan Carter, the author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, had it confirmed by a source who was present. Wallace ran a harsher campaign in 1962–he did not, for instance, denounce the Klan, as he had in 1958–and won. We don’t see the campaign, but we do hear parts of his famous 1963 inaugural speech. Sinise, speaking from the actual transcript, promises, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The film also faithfully re-creates Wallace’s attempt to prevent two black students from registering at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Wallace is seen standing in a school doorway on a June 1963 morning, and then stepping aside, eventually, under federal pressure.

E mploying historical footage, the film also shows state troopers attacking voter-registration marchers in Selma on March 7, 1965, with tear gas and clubs. Sinise’s Wallace tells his aides that the troopers were justifiably trying to keep the peace and protect the state from “agitators.” While accounts conflict about whether Wallace authorized the troopers’ use of force, the film’s portrayal of his reaction is consistent with the record. Carter writes, “[Wallace] never issued a single word of public criticism. A quarter-century later–while expressing regret for the injuries suffered by the marchers–he insisted that troopers had ‘saved their lives by stopping that march.’ “

The film’s conclusion is also based on a real event. In 1974, Gov. Wallace, crippled by a 1972 assassination attempt, enters Montgomery’s Dexter Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached. Wallace asks the congregation for forgiveness. The crowd starts to sing “Amazing Grace.” The visit did happen. Carter notes, however, that it wasn’t spontaneous, as it is in the film; Wallace had been invited to speak. Also, Carter says that news accounts “give no hint that Wallace explicitly asked for forgiveness”; he just said he opposed integration because he favored states’ rights, not racism.

Two inventions are used to bolster the dramatic power of this conclusion: In one, which takes place just after the Selma march scene, Archie (Clarence Williams III), the fictional prison trusty who serves as Wallace’s servant throughout the film, stands behind the governor, an ice pick in his hand, debating whether to stab him. Oblivious to Archie’s rage, Wallace prattles on about a favorite black handyman of his youth. He clearly has far to go before he sees the error of his ways.

In another, set just before the church visit, Wallace goes to the home of his former populist mentor, ex-Alabama governor James E. “Big Jim” Folsom. The film correctly implies that Wallace had split with the more liberal Folsom over racial politics. But Wallace never paid a visit to Folsom to say “I ain’t the same now,” only to have the door slammed in his face by Folsom’s wife–a scene from the film the Wallace family threatened to over.

Just as important, the climactic forgiveness scene at the church is wrenched from its political context. The film doesn’t show that Wallace later apologized for his segregationist views on TV, suggesting that his conversion had political motives. Commentators have noted the growth of Alabama’s black electorate, which Wallace now had to court. In 1982, Wallace won his last race for governor with a quarter of the black votes cast in the Democratic primary, a fact alluded to in a written epilogue at the end of the film. Nor do we see Wallace’s cynical attempts to win black votes, such as when he made sure a photographer was present at his meeting with Rosa Parks in the ‘70s–something the civil rights activist “always resented,” according to Carter.

Most strikingly, Wallace’s presidential campaigns–he ran in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976–are almost entirely omitted. At a 1972 rally in Laurel, Md., he was shot by a deranged man and paralyzed from the waist down–one campaign scene we see in detail. But there are almost no scenes of Wallace calling for law and order, or railing against excessive government and “pointy-head intellectuals.” We don’t see him surprise the nation in 1964 with strong showings in the Maryland and Wisconsin Democratic primaries–states outside the Deep South where he wasn’t expected to fare well. Lesher is right that we don’t see the side of Wallace that has had a continuing influence on politics today. As historian Alan Brinkley wrote in a 1994 review of Lesher’s book: “In his national campaigns, Gov. Wallace laid out in flamboyant and often witty form much of what would soon become the program of the New Right.” George Wallace commits Wallace’s rhetoric and ideas to the past, making him the last of one kind of politician–the die-hard segregationist–rather than, perhaps, the precursor of another.