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Film / Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment

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Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment is a 1963 documentary film by Robert Drew.

It is a record of the June 1963 "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door", regarding the judicially-mandated racial integration of the University of Alabama, the opposition to the same from Governor George Wallace, and the subsequent intervention by President John F. Kennedy.

The first two black students at the university, Vivian Malone and James Hood, were arriving for enrollment on June 10. A similar moment when James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi a year earlier had led to a white racist riot ending in two deaths and much destruction of property, so President Kennedy along with his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought for a way to get Malone and Hood safely enrolled in accordance with the judge's order while allowing Wallace to save face and avoid violence.

Drew's cameras were granted unlimited access to the Kennedy brothers, as well as George Wallace, as events unfolded. Crisis was first shown on ABC television in October 1963, four months after it was filmed and only a month before JFK's assassination. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2011.

Compare Primary, a Drew documentary about the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary in which Drew had similar fly-on-the-wall access to JFK as well as his opponent Hubert Humphrey.

Tropes used in this film:

  • Documentary: A TV documentary short about the integration of the University of Alabama on June 1011, 1963.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: The film doesn't dwell on it, but the scene of Wallace in the governor's mansion showing the cameraman around does include a shot of the black maid looking after Wallace's young daughter, a reflection of the social hierarchy in Alabama.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The opening narration says events take place over only 30 hours.
  • Heat Wave: Deputy AG Nicholas Katzenbach tells Robert Kennedy's little daughter that it's 98 degrees in Alabama and "we're all gonna get hardship pay."
  • Hitler Cam: Used for some early shots of Wallace, and appropriate as he is the villain of the piece.
  • Narrator: James Lipscomb, who was a cinematographer on the project, also provides narration.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with RFK placing a triumphal good night phone call to his brother, then striding away from the camera, taking off his tie as he goes.
  • Pet the Dog: Wallace is shown being affectionate to his toddler grandchild.
  • Title Drop: "This is an account of a crisis, and a story behind a presidential commitment."
  • Villain Opening Scene: The first shots are of George Wallace at the Alabama state capitol.