Does Black Reality Still Go to the Back of Hollywood’s Bus? : ‘Unconquered’ Depicts Plight of Southern White Liberals During Civil Rights Struggle

Times Television Critic

The burnings, the lynchings, the shootings, the knifings, the beatings, the cursings. The screaming, the harassing, the abusing, the hating. The threats, the taunts, the all-out terror in the South.

Yes, it was a terrible time for white liberals.

“Unconquered” is the “fact-based” story of Richmond Flowers Jr., a white Alabaman who overcame prejudice against blacks to become a high school track star and a football star at the University of Tennessee. And you thought Martin Luther King Jr. had it bad.

Airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS Channels 2 and 8, the closeness of “Unconquered” to King’s birthday Monday is unfortunate, to say the least. More than even the theatrical movies “Cry Freedom” and “Mississippi Burning,” here is a classic case of the black experience filtered through surrogate white eyes.


Blacks? Don’t be such a stickler. Just because it’s their suffering doesn’t mean they have to be in it much. Besides, white suffering in their behalf sells better in the view of industry decision-makers.

We open in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Despite having bad asthma and a foot problem severe enough for him to wear corrective shoes, Richmond Jr. is determined to play football. An even greater liability for young Richmond is Richmond Sr., a state senator whose friendliness with King and backing of black causes has earned him the tag of “nigger lover.”

Now it’s 1964. Richmond Jr. (Dermot Mulroney) has been cut from the high school football team, but he makes the track team and acquires a best pal in Arnie Woods (Frank Whaley) and a girlfriend in Jenny Robertson (Cindy Shiver). And Richmond Sr. (Peter Coyote) has acquired a new, even more visible job as state attorney general. Meanwhile, in a bit of emphasis that seems somewhat misplaced, there’s a back story.

Civil rights.


As in back-of-the-bus story. So far back that at one point, the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo becomes a sort of video sidelight to one of Richmond Jr.'s track meets.

Echoing all athletes whose stories are told on TV, Richmond Jr. overcomes adversity. This includes the wrath of white racists responding to the liberal views of his father, who becomes “the most hated white man in Alabama.”

A cross is burned on the front lawn. A brick crashes through the window. There are clashes with redneck classmates who are jealous of Richmond Jr.'s athletic success and angered by the integrationist views he shares with Arnie and Jenny.

Richmond Jr. makes things even worse by rescuing a black child from humiliation by white racists (then lecturing the boy on having more self-esteem).

King occasionally shows up to serve the plot, and dollops of civil rights activity are applied for the sake of atmosphere. By now, however, the suffering of Flowers’ family and friends looms big, much, Much, MUCH bigger even than the suffering of the blacks whose rights they support.

In fact, the murder of King becomes merely a 5-second footnote--handled by a phone call--to the fuzzily explained legal problems of Richmond Sr. He is sent to prison after being convicted of “conspiring to exact payments illegally from persons and firms doing business in Alabama.” The implication is that he was framed by powerful forces offended by his liberal views.

Meanwhile, Richmond Jr. gets a measure of revenge by scoring the winning touchdown for Tennessee against the University of Alabama. Yes, those segregationists can’t conquer him . . . or something like that.

Just whose story is this anyway? Producer/director Dick Lowry and scriptwriter Pat Conroy seem unsure themselves, judging by their lack of focus. They surely offer nothing on the screen to justify the attention given to Richmond Jr., who does indeed seem like a swell and gutsy guy with many fine attributes, but whose plight hardly mattered compared with that of blacks trapped in the vice of segregation.


What obviously did matter, as this project passed through various stages of development, was that the hero was white. If Richmond Flowers Jr. were black, there would be no “Unconquered.”