"Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism", winner of the 1997 International Documentary Association/ABCNews VideoSource Award, looks at the history and politics of the South in the decade and a half following the end of World War II, as seen through the story of Alabama's colorful, six foot eight inch governor James E. "Big Jim" Folsom.
Starting his campaign for governor in 1946 with $100, Folsom was laughed at for his hillbilly band, country airs and ragtag group of supporters, including a young amateur boxer named George C. Wallace. Folsom’s shocking victory overturned the planter/big business oligarchy that had ruled the state since Reconstruction, giving hope to the state's poor majority.
Like earlier populists such as Huey Long, Folsom was audacious enough to promote the economic and political rights of poor blacks as well as whites. But by the 1940s and 50s, this was a dangerous course. When he refused to oppose the Supreme Court’s desegregation decree in 1954, the die was cast. When he thumbed his nose at his opponents by inviting Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell to the governor’s mansion for a drink, his former ally George Wallace formally broke ranks with him, setting his own course for the politics of race. The state’s major newspapers, which had never supported Folsom to begin with, refused to cooperate with his efforts to mediate the state’s escalating racial crisis. The increasing corruption among those around him further eroded his power and Folsom was considered a has-been when he left office in 1959.
But Folsom was ready for one last stand in 1962, when his principal opponent would be Wallace, now fully committed to the segregationist cause. Folsom would lose whatever chance he had when he appeared drunk on statewide television the night before the election -- possibly the result of a ‘mickey’ provided by someone on the opposing side. Wallace was elected and vowed that racial segregation would last ‘forever’.
Awards: Southeastern Filmmaker Award, 1997 Atlanta Film Festival
International Documentary Association/ABCNews VideoSource Award, 1997
Official selection, 1997 Hot Springs International Documentary Festival