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Frenzy Feature

The Road to Damascus

How the Makers of George Wallace Captured Their Complex Subject

Film Fest Frenzy 2000

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By Clay Smith | Posted 4/19/2000

There's a moment in George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire that just about says it all: In 1958, after losing his first race for governor of Alabama, Wallace walks down the street in his trademark swashbuckling swagger with some of his cronies in tow. He stares confidently into the camera. His bulldog jowls and upturned eyebrows express resistance, but also a certain inevitable fascination with being the center of attention. The filmmakers freeze-frame the image, as if to say, "This is the moment when George Wallace sold his soul." He had just lost to John Patterson, an inveterate segregationist. It was the last time Wallace would fail to read the populace. From that point on, he told people just what they wanted to hear, and he was a genius at it. "Here's a man of great talent, great skill, great charm, great everything," J.L. Chestnut, an African-American lawyer who knew Wallace, says in the film. "But it was all focused in the wrong directions, in the pursuit of power for the wrong reasons. That's the tragedy of George Wallace."

In the late '50s, Wallace was the hope of Alabama liberals. Many of the bills he wrote after his election to the state legislature in 1947 (at the age of 28) involved programs for the poor. After being elected to a Circuit Court judgeship in 1952, Wallace routinely handed down progressive rulings. He was the first judge to call Chestnut--the first black attorney to work in the city of Selma--Mr. Chestnut. He asked to be put on the Board of Trustees of Alabama's most prestigious black university, Tuskegee University. In a TV ad during the '58 campaign, Wallace said, "I want to tell the good people of this state as a judge of the third judicial circuit, if I didn't have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don't have what it takes to be the governor of your great state."

In 1962, when Wallace won the first of his four terms as governor, he proclaimed "segregation forever"; the following year, he became a national symbol of white resistance when he stood in a University of Alabama doorway to literally block black students from entering. In the 1970s he began backing off his hard line on civil rights , and before he died in 1998 he publicly apologized for it. Most people's view of Wallace is frozen in two images: the fire-breathing racist in the schoolhouse door and the frail old man seeking redemption; George Wallace tells the more complex story behind those famous pictures.

"This should be a film people are surprised about," co-director Paul Stekler says. "Because what do they know about Wallace? That he was a segregationist, and they know that later in his life he asked for forgiveness. OK, well this film is about more than that." What that is, Stekler says, is the arc of a life--a much broader arc than most people are willing to concede when it comes to Wallace.

The seeds of the film were planted 15 years ago, when Stekler attended a conference on Southern politics at the Citadel in South Carolina and saw some archival footage of Wallace that "jumped off the screen." Eight years ago, he wrote the first grant seeking funding for a Wallace documentary. Six years ago, the first interviews were filmed.

Growing up in overwhelmingly poor Barbour County, Ala., Wallace saw politics as his best hope of getting out. He began playing the political game early on. "When he was a very young boy, 5 or 6 years old," George Wallace Jr. says of his father in the film, "when he would see someone in [his hometown of] Clio he had not seen, he would go up to them . . . and shake their hand and say, 'Welcome to Clio. If I can do anything for you, let me know.'"

"I'm a political guy," Stekler says. "And I'd gotten into Wallace's story because of his impact on American politics." But Daniel McCabe, Stekler's co-director, was interested in more personal questions: What is life like for a firebrand who suddenly is paralyzed by a would-be assassin's bullet, as Wallace was during a presidential-campaign stop in Laurel, Md., in 1972? What is his relationship with his wife like after he's paralyzed? How do you seek forgiveness from all of your enemies? What happens if your enemies are dead?

"What I really like about Dan is that Dan and I have very different ways of asking questions," Stekler says. "I'm much more specific, Dan is much more 'Tell me the lay of the land of things,' and we would alternate during the interviews, so that we gave everybody as much chance as possible to be able to go over this territory."

That alloy of the political and the personal is what helps the filmmakers bring viewers to understand Wallace--even if they find his politics and actions repugnant.

"You're not trying to do 'gotcha' journalism where you're trying to get people to say things," Stekler says. "Your job as a documentary filmmaker is to find out what stories people want to tell you and to figure out first of all who's a really good storyteller and then how to get them to be able to tell their story in a way that's most compelling, that really shows the emotions that they feel . . . and then asking the questions in ways that get them to talk.

"There're a lot of different roads to Damascus," Stekler says of this process. For example, the filmmakers decided not to use footage of frail, bedridden Wallace struggling to speak in an interview they conducted with him near the end of his life. They decided to leave him mute. "He was more powerful as an iconic image," Stekler explains. "Hearing him gasp out words partially is unfair because the Wallace that we hear about is either the scary or the incredibly powerful Wallace of the '60s and the '70s, before he was shot."

"Unfair"? Such a consideration might seem relative when it comes to a demagogue like Wallace, whose savage invective harmed millions of people. But the filmmakers have their reasons. "I think there's something to the fact of watching him being frail," Stekler says. "Seeing the familiar lip and the familiar curl of the brow at the very end of the film, that last shot of him looking into the camera so that you're either looking into his soul or he's looking into yours, was much more powerful than hearing the words."

It's fitting for Stekler to cite Damascus. The filmmaker often uses the words "treasure" and "treasure hunt" when talking about Wallace and the process of turning his life into a documentary. He mentions an entirely unorganized archive at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to which he and Wallace biographer Dan Carter (The Politics of Rage), were given access. "You'd go up there and there were boxes and film cans and just file cabinets full of telegrams," Stekler says. And as for the film's living treasures, who could have predicted that the filmmakers would be able to capture someone on film actually saying, "I was George Wallace's son of a bitch"? Or an elderly black woman asserting that she thinks Wallace, at the end of his life, had changed? Or Gov. Big Jim Folsom's former campaign bandleader strumming his guitar and singing his more than 50-year-old campaign stump song for the filmmakers?

It's through such treasures that the film frames one of the defining political figures of latter-20th-century America--and, by extension, perhaps that era's defining issue. "I may not like [Wallace's] politics," Stekler says. "I despise his politics, and in many ways I despise the guy. But if you want to understand politics you have to understand what appeals to people."

Clay Smith is a senior editor at The Austin Chronicle, an Austin, Texas alternative weekly, in which this article originally appeared.

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