'Crisis' in Alabama

Over the Tube

One largely unanticipated by-product of civil rights activity this year has been its creative impact on television news coverage. All three major networks have pioneered aspects of television journalism: more network energy was devoted to the March on Washington than to any single event in history; CBS presented a one-hour debate on the northern press and civil rights; and NBC devoted three hours of prime evening time to an exploration of what it called "American Revolution--1963." Finally, on Monday night ABC joined the race with the best entry so far--a unique, one-hour documentary appropriately named Crisis.

Subtitled "The Story Behind a Presidential Commitment," Crisis portrays the week starting June 10, 1963; the decision to enforce the integration of the University of Alabama. The film unfolds like a drama. With pictures of Robert Kennedy and his family at a birth-day party in Bobby's house, of George Wallace's baby daughter thinking piano and kissing father, of Vivian Malone and James Hood in a Cadillac an route to school, and of President Kennedy, tired and pensive, the principal characters are introduced. The opening of the story was shot the morning of June 10, early, when the South was calm. On his way out the door that morning, Governor Wallace exchanged an affectionate greeting with his Negro cook and for a moment played catch with his gardeners. Then his chauffeur--"Joe," as Wallace calls him--drove the Governor to the State House.

Miles of film shot especially for this production have been spliced together to present the many sides of the crisis. Producers Robert Drew and Associates seem to feel, not illogically, that men--and the problems they face--make events. "Crisis," therefore, is an ingenious interweaving of portraits and problems. With monologue, dialogue, or a single frame of the camera, Drew's technique can lend insight into men who shape events. He captures Robert Kennedy on the telephone. "Hi General," he begins; "Listen, I'm not very much in favor of picking the Governor up and lifting him away. I'd rather just push him aside a little." His voice is almost childish; his energy is magnetic; he is in control.

Drew shows Governor Wallace, swarmed by adoring Alabama citizens, basking in the kind words of an elderly woman, "We're all watching everything you do, Governor, God bless you." And Drew captures the face of President Kennedy, exhausted, troubled, thoughtful, as he sits in his rocking chair, chin in palm, listening to this bother and his aids debating tactics and strategy.

Besides the people, Crisis presents their dilemmas. The film shows the Administration debating stategy and it suggests the numerous considerations involved many major decision. World opinion--the President regrets the humiliating 24-hour delay if the Federalized national guard cannot fly to Tuscaloosa at once; Pride--Deputy Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach would like to ignore Wallace, but worries that "the governor may be so humiliated that he will move all the way over to the extreme segregationist side;" the Press--Katzenbach suggests that if the students stay on campus even if not allowed to enroll, "it will be perfectly obvious to all those newspapermen that we haven't backed down one inch;" Morality--on Meet the Press the Attorney General recalls the President's comment "we're going to do this because it's the right thing to do."

Unhappily, because of the comprehensive nature of their reporting, Drew Associates had to agree to accept government censorship of the film. Top level conferences in the President's office are shown, but the soundtrack has been removed. This restriction seems strange since an uncensored version of the film was shown at the New York film festical and the scene in question seemed tame enough: Kennedy's congressional liaison, Larry O'Brien, warns that a televised address would endanger civil rights legislation, while the Attorney General passionately maintains that the President has a moral obligation to address the nation.

One other aspect of Drew's journalism creates a problem. In presenting the documentary in the form of a drama, complete with personality conflicts and a crucial dilemma, the producers are almost forced to provide the story with a resolution. In the case of Crisis, the students enter the school, Kennedy gives his speech, and another Negro student enters the school without problem. In a concluding scene, Bobby tells the President on the phone, "I think its very good. It's a fine thing to have behind us." There are problems, the film suggests, but we are working them out nicely.

Nevertheless, Crisis is an exciting, new form of television journalism. In trying to film each phase of a story and then edit it down to a comprehensive plot, Drew has ingeniously applied the "group journalism" of magazine like Time and Newsweek to a new journalistic medium. One hopes that in the editing of film, Drew will be able to continue to present insights with a minimum of bias and oversimplification.