'Edmund Perry Story' is American tragedy

Television

January 06, 1992|By Michael Hill

The death of Edmund Perry is a tragedy at once uniquely American and undeniably universal.

It is the story of the strong pulls of loyalties, the constant battle between finding your identity as a member of a group or as an individual, all filtered through the peculiar lens of the black experience in America.

Perry was a promising junior high student in Harlem, chosen -- as his brother had been before him -- for a program that sent kids with such potential and drive to elite prep schools.

He went to the most elite of the elite, Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, encountering people who came from a world of established white wealth, a place he had stereotyped as much in his mind as they had stereotyped Harlem in theirs.

It was a tough row to hoe, but Perry did it. Then, just days after his graduation, with matriculation at Stanford only a few weeks away, Perry was shot and killed by an undercover New York police officer. All evidence indicates that Perry was attacking, brutally beating, the officer at the time.

Journalist/author Robert Sam Anson, whose son was in Perry's class at Exeter, wrote a book about it, "Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry." Though NBC opted for a get-'em-into-the-tent title, the book has been sensitively adopted for television in "Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story," which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) tonight at 9 o'clock.

Curtis McLaren, in a performance of subtle depth, makes Perry a mass of contradictions -- fresh-faced, hopeful, upbeat, yet troubled, temperamental, depressed. It is a portrait of adolescent turmoil magnified and highlighted by Perry's circumstances.

Similarly impressive work is turned in by other young members of the cast, particularly Carla Guigno as Allison, Perry's almost-girlfriend, Christopher Daniel Barnes as his roommate Sean and Guy Killim as his brother Jonah. Anna Marie Horsford plays his mother, possessed of ambition for her boys, and Taurean Blacque is the father more skeptical of these plans. Georg Stanford Brown is the high school teacher who pushes Perry into the prep school program.

What is particularly admirable about "Murder Without Motive" is that, under Kevin Hooks' direction from Richard Wesley's script, it backs off only slightly from the complexities of this situation.

It would have been easy to have depicted Perry as a victim of a well-meaning but insensitive white establishment who was placed in an untenable situation and finally exploded in blind rage. Certainly there was plenty of that. It is personified in the somewhat caricatured role of the Exeter headmaster played by Dakin Matthews.

When that headmaster tells Perry that to make it at Exeter, he has to forget about Harlem, you realize just what pressure is felt by every black person who decides to venture out into what is still for most a foreign world. Just imagine being told that you must forget about your own upbringing, about the community that produced and nurtured you, to make it in this new, and supposedly better, world.

But then, when Perry returns home, he is faced with a totally different and equally destructive message, as friends, now dealing drugs and getting their girlfriends pregnant, tell him he's turncoat, he's become a white boy, a member of the opposing tribe.

Even fellow black students at Exeter frown on Perry's attempt at assimilation, particularly his attempt to further his relationship with Allison. Clearly they care deeply for each other, but the barrier of race remains, stubbornly entrenched as it is throughout this country in the place where it might disappear most easily, in matters of the heart.

As we sit in America and watch Yugoslavia destroy itself over ancient ethnic rivalries, as we see seven decades of union wiped out as Russia and Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova and the rest return to their tribal boundaries, we have to realize how lucky we are to live in a country relatively free of such pressures.

This nation was made up of people who fled messes like those for a place where the individual, not the clan or tribe, was paramount. Over the ensuing centuries, the various barriers, religious and ethnic, that remained have been broken down to a remarkable degree in the United States.

But with a legacy of 300 years of enforced separation, through slavery and segregation, the black and white races still peer at one another over a deep abyss. All too often, as this movie documents so well, an Edmund Perry falls into it and is lost forever, leaving us all impoverished.

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