Whoopi Goldberg is the dominant force in "The Long Walk Home," though Sissy Spacek is top-billed and receives equal screen time in this look at the early days of the civil rights movement.

That says more about Hollywood than anything else, as movies reflecting incidents in black history continue to be told from a white point of view. "The Long Walk Home," however, does mark a step in the right direction, as Goldberg's character is fleshed out, detailed and shown to have a family, which is more than can be said of many recent films in this vein.But the main reason Goldberg's character dominates "The Long Walk Home" has to do with her powerfully understated, forceful performance, which is what throws the movie into high gear and carries it through to a touching finish.

The setting is Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, when the black community came together to boycott the city buses, protesting their having to enter and congregate at the back while white passengers entered at the front and could sit anywhere.

Goldberg's character is Odessa Cotter, a maid to flighty Southern housewife Miriam Thompson (Spacek). She's also practically a mother to Miriam's children, since Miriam is too busy with bridge parties and hairdressers to bother paying much attention to her kids.

The main plot hinges on Odessa's family supporting the boycott, which requires her to take a very long walk each day to and from work, along with Miriam's subsequent decision to give Odessa a ride twice a week.

Naturally, when Miriam's husband, a hard-line old-fashioned Southern traditionalist, finds out about this, he's not happy. Especially since his bigoted brother is egging him on.

As directed by Richard Pearce, whose other films include "Country" and "Heartland," a pair of slow-moving but superbly realized examinations of rural hardships, "The Long Walk Home" is also a deliberate film that inches its story along by focusing on minor day-to-day events and small truths about human relationships.

There are stark moments of incredible insensitivity, as when Miriam's parents crudely speak their minds about the busing issue while being served dinner by Odessa. And there are moments of gentle beauty as when Odessa shocks the family by including her employer in a family prayer.

The film's most obvious and irritating flaw is an intrusive voice-over narration by one of Miriam's kids (voiced by Mary Steenburgen), supposedly remembering all of this (including things she could not possibly know about) from her childhood. It comes into play so infrequently you'll forget about it for long stretches, making it even more ridiculous when it returns.

Movies like this hang on the performances of their stars, since one unconvincing role can send an intimate character study reeling into unintended directions. No worry here - the cast, right down to the smallest parts, is excellent.

Spacek is, as usual, utterly believable as the Southern belle who wants to change but feels trapped by family and tradition, and Dwight Schultz as her husband is suitably pitiable. Ving Rhames is rings true as Odessa's husband, and the children on both sides are very natural.

But it is Whoopi Goldberg who shines here, and after her string of action pictures, the disappointing "Clara's Heart" and the ultra-popular but wildly uneven "Ghost," it's nice to see her in a movie that works on nearly every level, giving her an opportunity to show what a fine actress she really is.

This is arguably her best, most successfully sustained film since "The Color Purple" - and she certainly should have received a best actress Oscar nomination for "The Long Walk Home" instead of a supporting nomination for "Ghost."

"The Long Walk Home" is rated PG for some violence.