'Mama Flora' has a lot to say Television: Family's 20th century struggle adds to the mainstreaming of African-American history.

November 07, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There is a scene in the CBS miniseries "Mama Flora's Family" that features Flora Palmer (Cicely Tyson) at age 69 walking into a Tennessee coffee shop, attempting to integrate its lunch counter.

As the scene started to unfold, my first thought was that I'd been here before. And I had, with Tyson as Miss Jane Pittman integrating a water fountain in the acclaimed 1974 made-for-TV movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."

And the model for Pittman, according to director John Korty, was Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus.

You might think that's bad: television just recycling the same stories over and over, seemingly with no new ideas.

But it's not bad at all. In fact, in some ways, it is as good as popular culture ever gets: It is mythic.

This is television as ritual, telling an epic story -- a central historical narrative that embodies great cultural truths -- over and over to each new generation. "Mama Flora's Family," based on the novel by Alex Haley and David Stevens, is not only a big-name, big-budget, entertaining miniseries -- with a cast that includes Mario Van Peebles, Blair Underwood and Queen Latifah -- it's a profound one as well.

The story opens in 1970 with 74-year-old Flora on a bus headed for Baltimore to find her adult granddaughter, Diana (Queen Latifah), and Diana's 2-year-old son. She finds them all right, living in a filthy tenement, with Diana, a former Black Panther, strung out on alcohol and dope. Against Diana's will, Flora loads them on a bus headed south; she's taking them to her home in Stockton, Tenn., for some psychic healing. The four hours that follow consist mainly of flashbacks, as Flora tells Diana the story of her life. At first, Diana resists. But slowly, she starts to fall under its spell and to sense its power to heal.

The journey starts in 1912 on a cotton farm in Mississippi. Flora is the 17-year-old daughter of a sharecropper, living in a tiny shack with her parents and a younger sister. The son of the owner of the farm is attracted to her and brings her to his family's house as a maid tending to his grandmother (Della Reese). He also brings himself to Flora's bed each night until she is pregnant. His family keeps her male baby and sends her packing on the first train headed for Memphis.

Night one of the miniseries, with its echoes of slavery and plantation life even though it's set in the first half of the 20th century, has too much melodrama and an uneven pace. What keeps you watching are the performances of Tyson and Latifah. They manage to create a genuine generational tension between their characters -- so real that Flora's house doesn't seem large enough to hold it at times.

But night two is when the miniseries really catches dramatic fire, with Underwood and Van Peebles center-stage as Flora's two very different sons. Underwood plays Willie, a good boy gone bad in Chicago in the 1930s and '40s, seemingly lost to gambling and drugs. But Willie becomes a hero in World War II -- a hero who, after the war, can find only janitorial work in Chicago as he starts to raise a family.

Van Peebles plays Luke, the son taken away from her on the farm in Mississippi. Luke is a successful lawyer and Muslim living in New York. Luke will have to make his own great journey of healing before he can be reunited with the mother he never knew as a child.

Flora's story is America's story, from the Depression through the Civil Rights Era, as seen from the African-American perspective. Flora is an archetype of perseverance -- a spirit that will not be broken.

In a business sense, like last week's ratings hit, "The Temptations" on NBC, "Mama Flora's Family" is a case of the networks trying to bring African-American viewers into their Nielsen tent during a "sweeps" period when audiences are measured and advertising rates set.

The mainstreaming of African-American history by commercial television this season in miniseries like "Mama Flora" is an important development. It started in the 1970s with "Miss Jane Pittman" and Haley's "Roots," but it seems as if we are seeing more of it this year than ever before on television and in feature films.

One central message of "Mama Flora" is that hearing such history can heal. It works that way in the movie for Flora's %J granddaughter. Wouldn't it be nice if it works that way for the audience, too?

Miniseries

What: "Mama Flora's Family"

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tomorrow and Tuesday

Where: CBS (WJZ, Channel 13)

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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