'The Civil War' was easily the high point of the year's documentaries

January 02, 1991|By Walter Goodman | Walter Goodman,New York Times

Thanks to Ken Burns and company, choosing the year's best documentary presents no headaches.

"The Civil War" made a powerful narrative out of the evocative photographs and moving words of the men and women, famous and obscure, who played a part in the nation's epic conflict.

In addition to serving as an absorbing course in American history and a tribute to those who bore the pain and achieved the glory, these 11 hours, which attracted a record number of viewers for a PBS limited series, are a landmark of American television.

Although "The Civil War" was special, public broadcasting came through with many other first-rate documentaries.

Several, most notably the eight-part series "Eyes on the Prize II," focused on black Americans.

This strong sequel by Henry Hampton to his memorable 1987 series, relied on newsreels to carry forward the eventful history from the ascendance of Malcolm X in the mid-1960s up to 1980, when race relations seemed less explosive yet still unsettled and unsettling.

Two other solid documentaries looked at race relations from a fresh perspective.

"Politics: The New Black Power" was a sophisticated account by Juan Williams, a Washington Post reporter, of the phenomenon of the "crossover politician" -- black officials, like Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore and Ron Brown, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who are making it in the political mainstream.

Williams suggested that whatever hope there is for greater black participation in American politics can be found in the careers of these successful politicians rather than in those of more sectarian figures.

Another unorthodox approach to black-white relations came from Shelby Steele, a professor of English at San Jose State University, who reflected on issues growing out of the killing in Brooklyn of 16-year-old Yusuf K. Hawkins by a gang of young white men.

In "Seven Days in Bensonhurst," Steele concluded that racial provocateurs like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who exploit such events, may be obscuring changes in white attitudes and misdirecting energies needed by blacks for economic development.

In quite a different spirit, "'Amazing Grace' With Bill Moyers" found the busy journalist on a search for the origins and the appeal of the hymn, written by a reformed 18th-century English slave-trader, that has found so abiding a place in America's gospel tradition, white as well as black.

The public stations also had their share of less impressive documentaries.

The year's superdud was "Race to Save the Planet," 10 hours' worth of worthiness about the efforts of nations around the globe to save mankind from self-destruction.

Over on the commercial stations, the most stirring news specials were inspired by the freeing of Nelson Mandela after many years in South Africa's prisons.

All the networks were there, and it was emotion-rich television, with a world-class hero at its center.

It cannot be said that the networks' analysis of the ramifications of Mandela's release or their treatment of South African politics in the months since have matched those early hours.

But television news is generally better at capturing the moment than explicating its significance.

For viewers with the time, C-Span's unabridged attention to the Senate Ethics Committee hearings into the relations of five U.S. senators with Charles Keating of savings-and-loan infamy offered instructive if sometimes dispiriting look at the marriage of politics and money.

With its straightforward coverage of the workings of Congress and other institutions through the year, C-Span reinforced its special niche among the cable channels.

Several big news names basked in their celebrity this year, while others tried out new ventures, with mixed results.

"The Best of Nightline With Ted Koppel, 1980 to 1990" was an engaging review of the ABC program that began with the taking of American hostages in Iran and continues to deliver nightly vitamin supplements to the once-over-fast helpings of network news.

Again this year, ABC News gave time, via Koppel and Peter Jennings, to important stories, including the abortion issue, America's role in supporting the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the political commotions in Eastern Europe.

Among the more worthless documentaries of 1990, on the other hand, was NBC's "New Hollywood," Tom Brokaw's report on nothing new.

Dan Rather of CBS News was particularly busy racing around the Middle East in search of stories, which he occasionally found.

Another self-tribute, "Mike Wallace, Then and Now," offered evidence of the place that the CBS veteran has won in the hearts of his fans. Some of the excerpts misguidedly tried to show Wallace in a soft light, but the fun of the hour lay in examples of his performances as Mean Mike, the Scourge of the Tube.

A less successful exercise in self-celebration came this month, on PBS, in the form of "15 Years of MacNeil/Lehrer."

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