'Great Depression' is powerful television

TELEVISION REVIEW

October 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

It's not landmark TV. But "The Great Depression" is good enough to go out of your way to see.

The seven-hour documentary, which starts tonight at 9 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), is produced by Henry E. Hampton, of "Eyes on the Prize" fame. While it's not in a league with "Eyes" or Ken Burns' "The Civil War," it's only a cut or two below that level.

"The Great Depression" is the story of America in the 1930s, when the economic system collapsed, turning the American Dream into a nightmare of hunger and desperation for millions.

Hampton breaks his telling of events down into seven one-hour segments, ranging from Socialist Upton Sinclair's campaign for governor in California to the New Deal programs under Fiorello La Guardia in New York City. And all the famous people of the era are there: Henry Ford, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles (Pretty Boy) Floyd, Joe Louis, Charles Lindbergh and Herbert Hoover.

But almost everything that is good about "The Great Depression" flows from a choice Hampton and his colleagues made to focus on non-famous people -- those who are called "non-elites" by historians.

The saga opens with the voice of actor Joe Morton, the series' narrator, saying, "Somehow, in the hardest of times, with America slipping away, our parents and grandparents found the courage to fight their way out . . . They may have done an imperfect job -- some lost their nerve and some gave their lives. But by the time the Great Depression was over, they had done more than simply save America -- they had made a new America."

That's the power of this series -- seeing our parents and grandparents on the screen, not the famous parents or grandparents of John and Caroline Kennedy, as is typical in most documentaries and docudramas about our past.

And Hampton takes it a step further than any other mainstream documentary- maker to include all our grandparents and parents, not just the white ones. The stories of African-Americans and Asian-Americans in the 1930s are told with a feeling and thoroughness unprecedented on TV.

"The Great Depression" shows the view from the White House and Wall Street on down, in the years between the end of the "Roaring Twenties" and the start of World War II. But it also makes you feel from the ground up what it was like to be a homeless woman with two starving kids in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma or an unmployed black auto worker with a family from Alabama facing a winter of famine and fear in Detroit.

It accomplishes that not through any razzle-dazzle of presentation, but instead through the hard legwork of journalism and history.

In the case of Ford auto workers, for example, Hampton's researchers went through Michigan newspaper accounts from 1932 of a bloody labor dispute, which culminated in 3,000 unemployed auto workers marching on the Ford plant in River Rouge. Four people were killed and 25 wounded when police and Ford security officers fired on the marchers.

The names of those arrested, which were listed in the newspapers from 1932, were then crosschecked against current telephone directories until Hampton's team had tracked down the survivors of the march.

Hearing these men and women tell their stories of life and death in the winter of 1932 in Detroit is one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had as a viewer. They are presented in grim counterpoint to the hollow platitudes of Henry Ford heard in tonight's first hour, "A Job at Ford's."

One of the major problems with the series is that the seven hours are uneven. "A Job at Ford's" and the sixth hour, "To Be Somebody," are the most compelling. Hour four, "We Have a Plan," a look at California in the '30s, is the weakest.

"To Be Somebody" focuses on the discrimination and violence African- Americans and others felt as the noose of capitalism-gone-wrong tightened. Among its most powerful moments are those spent re-examining the 1933 lynching of a retarded black man accused of assaulting an 82-year-old white woman.

The lynching took place not in the Deep South, but in the Maryland town of Princess Anne. Clarence Mitchell reported the lynching and the brutality done to the corpse in Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper at the time. Hampton uses that account and eyewitnesses to make us see the recent past as it really was, not as we might wish to romanticize it.

Splendid as it is in terms of such history, it's going to be interesting to see how a mass audience responds to "The Great Depression."

Hampton says the seven hours are united by the central drama of common people confronted by the threatened collapse of their country. But the drama is not felt equally hour to hour, and the HTC subject matter is often so grim that I wonder if viewers will stay with it.

Unlike many PBS stations which are showing it on successive Mondays, MPT is going all-out and airing the documentary four straight nights, as it did with "The Civil War."

Seven hours for four straight nights is a big commitment of anyone's time. If you can't make it, make sure your VCR does.

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