'Murder Without Motive' makes commendable effort to explain a tragedy

January 06, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

If you think all made-for-TV movies end in simplistic, upbeat, candy-cane conclusions, watch "Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story" at 9 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2). The docudrama about the 1985 shooting death of a young, African-American scholar from Harlem goes out of its way to see the tragedy from several points of view, and it is willing to end without any neat resolution.

As a teen-ager, Perry received a scholarship to the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the nation's most prestigious prep schools. Ten days after his graduation from Exeter, he was gunned down in Harlem by a New York undercover police officer who said Perry attacked him. The film, which is based on a book by Robert Sam Anson about Perry's life and death, says that Perry did, indeed, attack the officer. But it attempts to explore the rage that led to the attack.

"Murder Without Motive" has several things to recommend it. Curtis McClarin turns in a fine performance as Perry. Christopher Daniel Barnes does nice supporting work as Sean, Perry's one friend at school. Most important, the filmmakers seem to be legitimately trying to understand the cultural confusion and sense of dislocation in the teen- ager's overnight journey from the inner city to the hallowed halls of ivy.

They go beyond the mainstream notion that the scholarship and chance to attend Exeter are automatically wonderful things that should have left Perry happy and grateful. But like Anson, they don't go far enough. The vague explanation for the death offered over Perry's coffin by a white classmate is emblematic of the filmmakers' overall inability to convincingly get inside Perry's head and help viewers really understand him.

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