'She Stood Alone' is compelling history

April 15, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

IN THE 1830s, if you were a woman who found herself pushing 30 and still not married, you prepared yourself for going quietly into the good night of spinsterhood, perhaps living with a sister and brother-in-law, everybody's aunt, good at needlepoint.

Certainly you didn't own your own property, buy your own house. You might be a schoolteacher, but you didn't own your own school. And, if you did, you didn't agree to admit a black girl to share the desks and ink wells with the young white offspring who were getting their proper edu cation under your tutelage.

But that is exactly what Prudence Crandall did in Canterbury, Conn., in 1832. That series of events is earnestly, if somewhat unimaginatively, documented in tonight's NBC movie, "She Stood Alone," on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock.

JTC Mare Winningham stars as Crandall, mixing in a prim-and-proper 19th century sternness with her usual naturalistic approach to produce yet another effective performance.

The first scene foreshadows the entire drama as Crandall comes into Canterbury in a buggy being driven by a friendly black man and meets the town's white fathers, who are skeptical of her book-learning ways.

A Quaker by upbringing, Crandall had left the church to set out on her own path, resulting in a schism with her religious father. Crandall's independent outlook led her not to hesitate when one of her young black servants asked to sit in on classes. When that woman's younger sister applied for admission, Crandall agreed to take her in. Taurean Blacque, of "Hill Street Blues," plays the father of the two girls.

One by one, the white parents took their daughters out of the school. Encountering such racism for the first time, Crandall started reading the radical abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and eventually traveled to Boston to meets its publisher, William Lloyd Garrison, played by Ben Cross.

During one such meeting, she decided to devote herself to the education of black girls, turning her school into an institution for that purpose and attracting pupils from all over New England.

When harassment -- broken windows, a poisoned well, scare tactics during walks in the woods -- did not drive her out of town, the burghers of Canterbury got a state law passed prohibiting the importation of blacks into Connecticut for the purpose of giving them an education. A courtroom fight over that law provides the climactic scenes of "She Stood Alone."

In apparently the only major deviation from the historical record, screenwriter Bruce Franklin Singer gave Crandall a budding romance with a politically ambitious local widower, played by Robert Desiderio, a relationship that was doomed by her stance for racial equality.

It's an unnecessary addition that only serves to place this unconventional woman into conventional categories. Much more interesting is Crandall's relationship with Garrison, as in their conversations you can see a principled woman developing a political consciousness. And certainly the film can be congratulated for setting the record straight on one important point -- while slavery might have been confined to the South, racism thrived throughout the country.

Director Jack Gold manages to tell this story with a strong central narrative, but he is undercut by a set design that makes the movie look as if it were filmed in a museum. The houses don't look like places people actually live, but like something out of Williamsburg -- everything seems authentic but not real. It was made in St. Louis. Combined with a few unconvincing crowd scenes, the look helps give the production the sheen of an educational filmstrip.

Education is central to "She Stood Alone" as it kicks off ''Education 1st!'' week on NBC, a week of programming that will focus on education in a variety of shows. The project started a decade ago when scriptwriter Singer's mother, Dorothy G. Singer of the Yale Family TV Research Center, stumbled across Crandall's story and co-wrote an article on her. She passed it on to her son as a potential TV movie script, which he proceeded to write. The script languished until NBC went looking for something for Education 1st! week.

"She Stood Alone" tells a powerful story. The courage and prophetic foresight of Prudence Crandall, as interpreted by the talented Winningham, more than overcome the movie's few shortcoming.


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