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When Hate Turns the Other Cheek

TNT’s “George Wallace” ends in Alabama in 1979 on a footnote of repentant irony, with the former segregationist somberly apologizing to blacks inside Martin Luther King’s favorite church and then being wheeled out by a loyal African American servant as parishioners sing “Amazing Grace.”

In the wheelchair is that fine actor Gary Sinise, a haunting picture of a haunted figure seeking absolution by renouncing the hatred and wickedness he’d nourished for political advantage in a racial war zone of church bombings and murders. His extended pain after being savagely shot five times in a 1972 assassination attempt at last has taught him something about the suffering he’d caused others.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 23, 1997 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 23, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 8 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--The governor of Alabama was misidentified in a review of the TV drama “George Wallace” Friday. He is Forrest “Fob” James Jr.

In effect, you’re implored to join the merciful chorus inside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church--for after nearly four hours of unfurling the ex-Alabama governor like a Confederate flag and listing his moral crimes like charges at a show trial, this seething, yet splendidly entertaining two-parter--artfully directed by John Frankenheimer--fades out on a tone of forgiveness.

Just as a near-unanimous black vote in 1982 helped Wallace win his last gubernatorial race against an ultra-rightist Republican. And just as Jesse Jackson and other black leaders have sought out Wallace in later years as if he were an elder statesman.

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Not everyone will turn that cheek, given Wallace’s niche in history as poster boy for contemporary Southern racism and as possibly “the greatest of the American demagogues.” Southern-bred journalist Marshall Frady offers that mantle in “Wallace,” the biography on which Frady and Paul Monash based their TNT teleplay. They strip back the standard caricature, layer by layer, to expose a shrewd populist of complexity and contradictions.

“George Wallace” opens on the day of the shooting, the rapid fire coming at a political rally in Laurel, Md., after Democratic presidential hopeful Wallace delivers his standard underdog diatribe against “big-time national politicians.” One bullet penetrates his spinal cord and severs nerves, leaving him unable to walk, control bodily functions or have sex. And one more thing, adds his doctor: “I’m afraid you’ll never have another day without pain.”

Then come flashbacks, some in black and white, fused seamlessly with actual TV footage from the period, and all the more effective because Sinise--jaw rigid, brows arched, hair poofed, speech softened to an Alabama drawl--conveys no sense that he’s acting.

Another matter is the extent to which that political ruffian Wallace himself was acting while stomping on civil rights in the name of states’ rights and riding anti-black sentiments all the way to the governor’s mansion. And then rising to national prominence on behalf of an old Dixie as fragile as the red, white and blue balloons that adorned his election bashes.

He surfaces here as a rising young politician and disciple of relatively liberal Alabama Gov. “Big Jim” Folsom (Joe Don Baker, in one of his best performances), who initially rebukes the Ku Klux Klan and has the backing of blacks and Jews. Pragmatism intervenes after a loss at the ballot box, however, and Wallace repudiates Big Jim and ends his own political free-fall by reaching for the Klan like a parachute, vowing to confidantes: “I’m never gonna get out-niggered again.”

And he doesn’t. What follows is one of the dark periods of U.S. history, with Wallace making his infamous stand in a doorway against two black students seeking to register at the University of Alabama and turning cattle prods, police dogs and fire hoses on peaceful civil rights demonstrators.

*

In this account, he turns mostly anger on his first wife, Lurleen (superbly played by Mare Winningham), although not hesitating to deploy her to his advantage by having her run for governor (and get elected) as his surrogate when he’s prevented by law from succeeding himself. She died of cancer in 1968.

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The script credits Wallace with acute political instincts, as in understanding that racism was not confined to the South and that being publicly insulted and hooted down while speaking at Harvard would only help him with voters in his run for president. “Kiss my Southern ass goodbye,” he mutters in his limo at the campus protesters who are running him off.

There are tender moments here, too, as when his second wife, Cornelia (Angelina Jolie), romantically guides him across a room in his wheelchair to music, as if they were dancing.

But there’s no hint as to whether Wallace, until much later, had more than an occasional glint of remorse about his cynical, tire-screeching U-turn on social issues. Nor is there any mention of his wider gubernatorial record.

As always when history is transferred to TV or movies, moreover, audiences should view with caution, for “George Wallace” has gotten negative rumblings from some of his family and present Alabama Gov. James Hood. And there are several scenes here that, though effective drama, are nevertheless suspect for their veracity.

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One has a prison trustee known as Archie (Clarence Williams III), a veteran submissive servant of Wallace who is woven through the story, contemplating murdering his boss with a knife. To the filmmakers’ credit, viewers are informed in a concluding printed message that Archie is a composite character created “to reflect a viewpoint concerning this turbulent period of American history.”

And Archie does in a fashion, observing Wallace silently, almost invisibly, as Williams, acting with only his eyes, masterfully depicts someone imploding beneath a calm surface.

It’s Archie we see wheel Wallace into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then back out as one astonished black parishioner after another adds a voice to “Amazing Grace.” After so many years, partial redemption for a once-blind wretch. Harder to hate, still not easy to forgive.

* Part 1 of “George Wallace” airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m., and concludes at the same times Tuesday on TNT cable. The network has rated it TV-14 (may not be appropriate for children under the age of 14).

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