History A La Hollywood

The specter of "Mississippi Burning" now hangs over any movie that tackles the history of race relations in America. In pursuit of gripping melodrama, Alan Parker played fast and loose with the facts and was trounced by historians, civil-rights leaders and journalists for his transgressions. Let's hope the furor keeps Hollywood more honest in the future: surely there will be no more movies lionizing the FBI as heroes of the civil-rights movement.

Parker, to his credit, hasn't abandoned his social conscience. In "Come See the Paradise" he's constructed a drama about the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. Though his heart, and his facts, are in the right place, he's succeeded in reducing a powerful story of institutional racism into an unforgivably dull film. Whatever you think of Parker's films, they've never been boring. Toning down his usual hysteria may be an act of contrition, but why then was it necessary to tell the story once again from the vantage point of a white hero?

Dennis Quaid plays a labor organizer who falls in love with the beautiful Lily Kawamura (Tamlyn Tomita), whose family is forced to sell their possessions and move to the camps. One might forgive the choice if their love story weren't so relentlessly superficial. More than half the movie is devoted to the banal love story, yet beyond an immediate physical attraction, we've little idea what bonds these lovers together. Instead of endless scenes of their parting and reuniting, we'd like to see more of Lily's brother Charlie (the excellent Stan Egi), who is transformed by injustice into a bitter Japanese nationalist. Parker's first error was writing his own script: he makes the classic novice mistake of telling when he should be showing. And Quaid plays his part just as it's written - unconvincingly.

Director Richard Pearce and writer John Cork have more success with "The Long Walk Home," which examines the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott through the dual focus of black and white Alabama families. Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg) is a maid in the home of Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek), a complacent Southern housewife who spends her days playing bridge and attending Junior League luncheons at the country club. Both their lives are changed by the boycott, which arose in protest of the arrest of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Odessa begins to walk the four and a half miles to work, and when Miriam consents to drive her a couple of days a week it's not out of principle: she's irritated by the inconvenience. Yet gradually this pampered woman begins to open her eyes to the struggle around her, all the while keeping her thoughts hidden from her conservative husband (Dwight Schultz).

There's an overriding predictability to "The Long Walk Home": the moral issues couldn't be more cut and dried. What saves the movie from piety is its sense of psychological and period detail (the production design is unostentatiously right) and screenwriter Cork's recognition of the connection between Miriam's servitude to her husband and Odessa's servitude as a maid. We're seeing the genesis of the link between feminism and civil rights. Cork, a white Montgomery native, fails in his attempt to bring Odessa's family fully to life - they remain, all-too-familiarly idealized, noble icons. Though Goldberg provides the moral center, it's Spacek's subtly shaded housewife who provides the dramatic sparks. It's a faultless, smart performance. Spacek never gives Miriam fake heroic stature: she's an unconscious woman stumbling into bravery, not always for the right reasons. Director Pearce wisely keeps the lid on overt melodrama, faltering only at the end when a band of gospel-singing women defuse an angry mob of racists: it may have happened, but it plays like Hollywood blarney.

The understated passion of "The Long Walk Home" sneaks up on your emotions. "Come See the Paradise" is bigger, slicker and surprisingly numbing. One is grateful that Hollywood has acknowledged this shameful episode in our history; the pity is that Parker has botched the job. It's no coincidence that both these movies are set in the past. Hollywood is uneasy with racism in the present tense: it's a more uncomfortable place to be. It's easy to be on the side of the angels, but the movies we need must do more than flatter the audience. They must trouble the waters. We're still a long walk from home.