This is Alex Haley's Queen AH ``Roots'' inspired a nation to confront its multicultural history. Sixteen years later, a miniseries debuts and all the familiar terms apply: saga, epic, quest and triumph of the human spirit.

February 14, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Queen" is being promoted by CBS as the biggest TV event of February sweeps.

It has the potential to be that and more.

Just as "Gone with the Wind" told the story of white Southerners before, during and after the Civil War, "Queen" chronicles part of the African-American experience during those years; and just as Vivien Leigh became a household name as Scarlett O'Hara in 1939, the same will probably happen to Halle Berry this week as Queen.

It's the kind of television people talk about. And that talk is likely to include debate about white producers packaging the African-American experience as prime-time melodrama and selling it to viewers as history. "Queen" is a reminder of the role television plays as our national storyteller.

They really don't make television like this any more -- six hours and $18 million of miniseries spread over three nights starting tonight at 9 on WBAL (Channel 11). (Subsequent episodes will air Tuesday night and Thursday night at 9.) In the new multichannel universe of shrinking audience shares, networks normally can't afford the risk of committing six hours of prime time in any one week to just one production.

But few productions have the blockbuster potential of "Queen." Called "Alex Haley's Queen" in CBS' promotional material, it's based on Haley's story of his paternal grandmother, Queen Haley, and her journey from slavery through Reconstruction and into the 20th century. All the familiar terms apply: saga, epic, quest and triumph of the human spirit.

"Queen" reunited Haley with executive producer David Wolper and director John Erman, the team that made "Roots," the 1977 miniseries about Haley's maternal ancestors that may forever define the blockbuster of ratings blockbuster.

Haley died last February. But because of the Pulitzer-Prize winning author's involvement, Wolper had his pick of acting talent. He settled on Berry in the lead role as Queen, Jasmine Guy in the No. 2 role as Queen's mother, and a supporting cast that includes Danny Glover, Ossie Davis, Madge Sinclair, Paul Winfield, Raven-Symone, Ann-Margret, Martin Sheen, Tim Daly and Sada Thompson.

Berry, Guy and Glover are terrific.

While Berry, whose film credits include "Boomerang," "The Last Boy Scout," "Strictly Business" and "Jungle Fever," will probably be more celebrated than she ever imagined by the end of the week, it is Guy, star of NBC's "A Different World," who carries tonight's episode: Berry's Queen does not appear as an adult until the last half hour of Part 1.

The miniseries opens in 1841 on the Forks of Cypress plantation in Florence, Ala. The leading players are the slave, Easter (Guy); the son of the plantation owners, James Jackson Jr. (Daly); James Sr. (Sheen); and Sally Jackson (Ann-Margret). While his parents are keen on James Jr. making a proper marriage that would enlarge their land and slave holdings, James Jr. is keen on Easter. Eventually, James and Easter sleep together, and Easter becomes pregnant. She names her child Queen.

A lesser miniseries would rip through the James-Easter relationship, lingering only on the sexual aspect of it, reducing it to flesh, heat and taboo. But "Queen" spends time and makes it a relationship between two real people. Of the two, Easter is more interesting, thanks to Guy's performance.

Easter, a weaver on the plantation, is not eloquent. But he feelings for James are communicated in the way she reaches out to touch his face in a private moment, the coltish joy she moves with when he comes upon her one day as she hangs out the wash, the clenched anguish of her body as she stands watching him wed Southern belle Lizzie Perkins (Patricia Clarkson). It's Guy's performance that will make some viewers feel in their hearts the world of that plantation 150 years ago.

But once the adult Queen arrives, it is her show. Berry's Queen is invirtually every scene for the next four and half hours. It is through Berry's work that "Queen" ultimately rises or falls.

Elements of melodrama

Queen is a big role. Viewers see her age from a teen-ager to an old woman. But, by the second night, the elements of melodrama are so thick and heavy that they threaten to sink the story.

Queen leaves the plantation after the war and sets out to make her way in the perilous world of Southern Reconstruction. If she isn't starving in the rain, she's up to her petticoats in mud, or being exploited by some awful white person she had come to trust. It is like "The Perils of Pauline": She is beaten, loved, drugged, abandoned, reunited, raped, widowed, remarried and committed to a mental institution -- to name just a few of her passages.

But Berry keeps "Queen" from collapsing under the load of stereotype and melodrama that screenwriter David Stevens spreads a bit too thickly in his adaptation of Haley's story.

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