#279) Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)


#279) Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963)

Directed by Robert Drew

Class of 2011

Having effectively covered John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign with “Primary”, Robert Drew was granted full access by the Kennedy White House to cover one of the president’s crucial defining moments in “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment”.

By June 1963 it had been almost a full decade since “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas” declared segregated schools for African-Americans unconstitutional, but that didn’t stop the likes of Alabama and other southern states from denying entry for prospective students. The key holdout was George Wallace, the recently elected Democratic governor of Alabama, who was willing to stand in front of the University of Alabama’s main entrance to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood from entering the school, and thereby desegregating it. John Kennedy had promoted civil rights during his campaign but, now two years into his presidency, had done very little to keep his promise. Working with his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the President and his team were faced with the daunting task of finding a solution that would allow Malone and Hood to enter the school without resorting to violence or adding fuel to Wallace’s segregationist fire.

With the aid of Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, a two-fold solution was reached. With federal marshals on site, and with Malone and Hood safely inside a nearby car, Katzenbach gave Wallace one final chance to peacefully step aside and allow entrance for the students (a presidential proclamation calling for Wallace not to interfere had already been issued, Wallace was breaking the law by standing in the doorway). Wallace refused, prompting phase two of the plan: an executive order from President Kennedy that federalized the Alabama National Guard, taking control of the Guard out of Wallace’s jurisdiction and into Kennedy’s. After a reluctant command from Guard General Henry Graham and a face-saving speech from Wallace, the Governor stepped aside, and Malone and Hood entered the University of Alabama without incident. Later that evening, President Kennedy delivered his Civil Rights address on television, and proposed what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Like many a historical document on this list, it is fascinating to be in “the room where it happens”. To watch Kennedy and his team behind closed doors making the tough calls is a riveting viewing experience, as is watching Wallace’s unwavering determination to maintain his vow of “segregation forever”. Films that capture their specific moment in history are unquestionably worthy of preservation, but can also be depressing given how seemingly small progress has been made in the ensuing years (sure, African-Americans can go to any school in the south, but can they vote?).

Why It Matters: The NFR salutes Drew and calls the film “a uniquely revealing complement to written histories of the period, providing viewers the rare opportunity to witness historical events from an insider’s perspective.”

Seriously, Emmys?: Originally produced for ABC News, “Crisis” was completely snubbed at the 1964 Emmys (ABC was third among the broadcast networks’ news departments at the time). Coincidentally, the winner for Best Documentary was another look at the Kennedy presidency: “The Making of the President, 1960”. The Emmy ceremony was six months after Kennedy’s assassination, and the Television Academy was definitely in the mood to honor the late president, which makes the absence of “Crisis” even more conspicuous.

Other notes

  • For those of you obsessed with timelines, the events of “Crisis” occurred roughly 2 ½ months before the events of “The March”. Summer 1963 must have been unusually tense for America.
  • When your documentary begins with the song “Dixie” and footage of Governor George Wallace, you already know you’re in trouble.
  • There are many fascinating aspects of “Crisis”, one being the rare opportunity to see JFK when he wasn’t “on”.  The charm and charisma is gone, but the commitment you expect from a president remains.
  • I was also fascinated with Vivian Malone and James Hood. They are polished and prepared (with help from Katzenbach and the local NAACP chapter), but you never forget that they are both 20 years old. These two are ordinary young adults thrown into an unordinary experience, but their fear is controlled by their determination. They even manage to crack a joke or two the night before. I wish Drew et al devoted more screentime to these two.
  • Robert Drew is smart enough to know that even in direct cinema, sometimes you need a narrator to clear up a few things. That narrator, by the way, is “Crisis” cameraman James Lipscomb, who went on to film a slew of National Geographic specials.
  • In an adorable moment of levity, Robert Kennedy’s three-year-old daughter Kerry runs through Dad’s office, and takes a phone call with Nicholas Katzenbach. Kerry has continued her father’s legacy and today is a human rights activist.
  • Hats off to Katzenbach. Not only did he help come up with the solution, but he’s also the one who had to tell Wallace to stand down. And talk about grace under pressure; if that were me I would have had a full-Kavanaugh meltdown.
  • It is inconceivable to me that the Attorney General of the United States had these events relayed to him through telephone. I truly don’t understand how our top government officials did anything without cell phones or C-SPAN.
  • Wallace finally acquiesces, but with warning that this will effect the next election. “Whoever the South votes for will be the president.” In 1964, the South voted for Barry Goldwater, and they were pretty much the only ones who did in Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory.
  • In a final bit of optimism, the last shot of “Crisis” is of Dave McGlathery, the University of Alabama’s third African-American student, who enters the building with no protest or fanfare (albeit with a handful of National Guardsmen in the vicinity).
  • As in “Primary”, future “Dont Look Back” director D.A. Pennebaker is credited here amongst the camera crew.
  • Having now watched the events surrounding the “schoolhouse” incident for the first time, I am really concerned that Robert Zemeckis thought it was funny to have Forrest Gump stumbling around in the background.
  • Speaking of, a more serious recreation of these events is depicted in the 1997 TV movie “George Wallace”, starring “Forrest Gump” alum Gary Sinise.

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