PBS' 'Poverty' recalls the heyday of liberal spending

January 16, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the charms of PBS, as well as one of its irritations, is how completely out of step with the times it occasionally is.

Witness its seemingly endless paean to baseball last fall, while the real millionaire ballplayers went on strike and the owners frequently seemed like dirty, rotten scoundrels.

Or, consider the "Masterpiece Theatre" offering last year, "Portrait of a Marriage," a romantic, idealized chronicle of two English lesbians -- presented at a time when much of this country seemed to be taking a dim, conservative view of homosexuality.

"America's War on Poverty," which starts at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), might be the definitive against-the-grain PBS production.

The five-hour, three-night series on social programs of the 1960s is a sonnet to the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the left and the Democratic Congress' flurry of federal programs aimed at helping America's poor.

This documentary is probably not going to be required viewing for the new 104th Congress, or on the syllabus of any course Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is likely to teach.

In fact, if this elegy to the Johnson years, produced by filmmaker Henry Hampton, doesn't hurt the case for future funding of PBS with the more conservative members of Congress, nothing will.

But while the politics of PBS programs are impossible to ignore these days, such programs are more than just a matter of ideology. In terms of documentary filmmaking, "The War on Poverty" is a fine piece of work.

It has all the hallmarks we have come to associate with Henry Hampton, who also produced "Eyes on the Prize" and "The Great Depression" for PBS. It's beautifully written and edited, huge in scope and totally upfront about its liberal outlook.

Hampton's film tells a very different story from the one many revisionists on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have of what's often called the "give-away society" of the affluent 1960s. You will not see many people in the film -- outside of Barry Goldwater -- talking about "enslaving" poor people through welfare or destroying anyone's dignity with handouts of money and food.

This series gives charity -- even if it comes from the federal government -- a good name. It praises that element of the American spirit that champions the underdog and believes that no American should die from hunger, exposure or treatable ailments.

"War on Poverty" is very much about the way we used to be as a nation. It's a look at how the richest nation on Earth realized it had terrible poverty in its midst, rolled up its shirtsleeves and got out the checkbook.

The strength of Hampton's documentaries -- and "War on Poverty" is no exception -- is that he lets the subjects tell the story. So we see poverty through the eyes of the poor, who, it is pointed out, were mostly white and mostly employed.

The coal miners of West Virginia, among the white, working poor of Appalachia, were the catalyst for many of the social programs of the Great Society. The series suggests that poverty among persons of color or those who were unemployed would not have been enough to call society to such action.

Hampton gets almost all of the players on the screen -- the believers and the cynics, the capitalists and the workers, the poor and the people who believed that the poor were to blame for their poverty.

"War on Poverty" is a very good five hours of public television, if for no other reason than that it gives voice and substance to real people from our own recent and, this year at least, very controversial past.

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