The Road to Damascus
Paul Stekler's George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire
By Clay Smith, Fri., March 10, 2000
There's a moment in George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire that just about says it all: In 1958, after he lost his first bid to be the governor of Alabama, Wallace is walking 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 the race to John Patterson, an inveterate segregationist. It was the last time Wallace, who was the hope of progressive Alabama politics, 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, a black 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 1952, Wallace was elected an Alabama Circuit Judge and routinely handed down progressive rulings. He was the first judge to call Chestnut "Mr." Chestnut. In 1946, when he won his first political office at the age of 27 as a state representative from Barbour County, he wrote 50 bills, many of them programs for the poor. He asked to be put on the Board of Trustees of Alabama's most prestigious black university, Tuskegee University. In a 1958 TV ad, Wallace actually 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."
"This should be a film people are surprised about," says Paul Stekler, UT's head of production in the Radio-Television-Film Department and the co-director with Daniel McCabe of Wallace. "Because what do they know about Wallace? -- that he was a segregationist, and they know that later in his life he asked for forgiveness. Okay, well this film is about more than that." It's about the arc of someone's life, he points out; it's a much larger sweep of a life than most people are willing to give Wallace credit for. Fifteen years ago, Stekler attended a conference on Southern politics at the Citadel. While there, he saw some archival footage of Wallace that "jumped off the screen." Eight years ago, he wrote the first grant seeking funding for Wallace. Six years ago, the first interviews were filmed.
Wallace's only way out was politics and that was just fine by him. In overwhelmingly poor Barbour County, where he was born, Wallace began playing the political game early on. "When he was a very young boy," his son George Wallace Jr. says, "five or six years old, when he would see someone in Clio he had not seen, he would go up to them as a five- or six-year-old 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, apropos the complex process of collaboration that occurs, or needs to occur, to make a good film. "And I'd gotten into Wallace's story because of his impact on American politics." But McCabe, Stekler's co-director, was interested in something else, more personal questions: What is life like for a firebrand who suddenly is paralyzed by bullet fire, as Wallace was in 1972? What is his relationship with his wife like after he's paralyzed? How do you seek forgiveness from all of your enemies? Do you call each and every one of them on the phone or do you go visit them, one by one? What happens if your enemies are dead? "What I really like about Dan," Stekler says, "is that Dan and I have very different ways of asking questions. 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 makes Wallace a success, Stekler says. "Yeah, this is a historical documentary," he acknowledges, but it's a historical documentary that you actually want to watch. "And then if you tell us later on that you learned a lot of stuff too, then that's great."
How does a person sit down to have tea with Hitler? What is the secret to navigating the complex politics of encouraging viewers to understand Wallace? "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. ... It's casting." And then he says, as almost an afterthought, "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 gasping out his words in an interview they conducted with him at 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 Sixties and the Seventies before he was shot." Unfair? "Unfair" seems 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. He 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 that he and historian Dan Carter, who has written a biography of Wallace (The Politics of Rage), were given access to. "You'd go up there and there were boxes and film cans and just file cabinets full of telegrams," he 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 governor Big Jim Folsom's former campaign bandleader strumming his guitar and singing his campaign stump song for the filmmakers as he did some 50 years earlier?
"I may not like [Wallace's] politics," Stekler points out. "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."
George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire is co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society as part of the Texas Documentary Tour at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sunday, March 12, at 6pm and Friday, March 17, at noon. Admission is free with a SXSW film pass, or $6 for the general public/$4 for AFS members. The Texas Documentary Tour is an ongoing co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., KLRU-TV, The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.