Heartbreaking 'Miss Evers' Preview: HBO drama of the infamous Tuskegee Study is television with a conscience. It's awash in Emmy Award performances.

February 22, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Nobody makes television films with a social conscience like HBO. And, even for HBO, it's been a while since we've seen a film as purified, strong and stirring as "Miss Evers' Boys," which premieres tonight.

As far as I'm concerned, you can close the competition for this year's Emmys tonight in three of the major acting categories. Give the awards for best performances by male and female actors in a movie or miniseries to Laurence Fishburne and Alfre Woodard, with best male supporting honors going to Joe Morton. And there are even more fine performances beyond that from Obba Babatunde and Ossie Davis.

"Miss Evers' Boys," which is based on the NAACP Theater Award-winning play of the same name, opens in 1932 in Macon County, Ala., at the Tuskegee Hospital. Syphilis has reached epidemic proportions in African-American communities in the rural South -- 35 percent in Macon County, according to the film -- and the federal government has begun funding a treatment program at Tuskegee for black men.

Running the program are Dr. Brodus (Morton) from Tuskegee and Dr. Douglas (Craig Sheffer), a white physician and researcher who brings the grant money from Washington. It is Brodus' nurse, Eunice Evers (Woodard), who is given a government car and the formidable task of recruiting men for testing and treatment.

Among the men she signs up along the dusty back roads and endless cotton fields of rural Macon County is a local song-and-dance quartet led by Willie Johnson (Babatunde) and Caleb Humphries (Fishburne). She and Humphries attended grade school together until he mysteriously dropped out.

Humphries, who is working 40 acres and a mule as hard as he can to feed himself and his late brother's family in the Depression, is a proud and intelligent man with great suspicion of the government.

He agrees to be part of the Tuskegee program only because of Evers, who uses the government car to drive the quartet to local talent contests and dances where they perform. The four come up with the stage name Miss Evers' Boys for their group.

And all is going well -- including what looks as if it could be romance between Humphries and Evers -- until the government grant is abruptly ended and Brodus is told by the U.S. Public Health Service that there is more money available but only for study and experimentation on the men, not for treatment. This is where ethical and moral dilemmas as monumental and profound as anything in Ibsen arrive and unpack their bags for a stay of some 40 years in the lives of these characters.

In the 1930s, many in the medical community believed that blacks were biologically inferior to whites.

Some black doctors and researchers believed that by complying with the study -- which came to be known as the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male -- they could negate that racist notion.

The irony of disproving the idea of biological inferiority by showing that black men responded to a potentially fatal disease just as whites did was not lost on Brodus. He says he planned to treat the men once enough "pure" data was gathered from the untreated. But, before long, it became apparent that "enough data" included that which was gathered at the victims' autopsies.

But that is only a toe-in-the-ocean of moral ambiguities and ethical challenges that Brodus, Evers, Douglas, Humphries and others face for the rest of their lives because of this study. There are no easy answers, no simple villains or obvious heroes. Everyone is compromised in one way or another, and everyone has moments of decency if not heroism.

The filmmakers refuse to let Brodus off the hook as a total victim of racism.

Despite what seems like a fundamental goodness and flat-out passion for the "greater good of Negroes," he is shown listening all too intently to Douglas' Iago-like promises of more money for research and his own personal place in the history books. And, while Douglas could be the easy villain because of his skin color, even he is given moments of humanity, humor and kindness.

But no one faces the inner torment Evers does, as her intellectual commitment to what she and her strong-willed father (Davis) see as her professional duty is betrayed by what her heart tells her about withholding treatment and lying to men she has come to love. She is the one who must hold the hands of the dying and bear silent witness to the horrors that have been visited upon these men in the name of medical science.

Compared to the simplistic moral schemes of most made-for-television movies -- even some of the best Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations -- "Miss Evers' Boys" is like something from another planet. It is rich, dense, unsettling and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

The adaptation by Academy Award-winning and former blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein, along with memorable performances by Woodard and Fishburne, take you so far into the world of "Miss Evers' Boys" that you can smell the alcohol and sweat in the hospital rooms where the "research" was done on those sad, scared and brave men 60 years ago.

I can still hear the screams from Willie as Douglas does a spinal tap to get more of that "pure" data. They drown out every word every doctor has ever told me about trusting him or her to know what was best.

TV review

What: "Miss Evers' Boys"

When: 9 tonight

Where: HBO

6* Who: Laurence Fishburne, Alfre Woodard

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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