Race was part of the game

Review: `Passing Glory' tells of a civil rights face-off that happened on a basketball court in 1965

Radio and Television

February 17, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The civil rights struggle included thousands of skirmishes that advanced the cause of equality in tiny steps. "Passing Glory" is about one such confrontation, a high-school basketball game in 1965 New Orleans where the only real stake was bragging rights on the local scholastic sports pages.

Of course, things were a little more complicated than they would be today. One school, Jesuit High, loudly proclaimed by its partisans to have assembled one of the greatest teams of all time, is all-white. The other school, St. Augustine, with a team just as undefeated, did pretty well for itself, but both literally and talent-wise wasn't considered to be in the same league.

Or, as their own coach put it prior to abandoning his team just as the playoffs were set to begin, the young men were "the best darn colored team that this state has ever seen."

School policy and local prejudice conspired to keep the teams apart -- until a new Josephite priest with a chip on his shoulder, Father Joseph Verrett, took over and decided to force open a few doors.

"Passing Glory," debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT, is the story of that game between the Jesuits and St. Augustine's Purple Knights. It's a story of courage and talent and bullheadedness and not being afraid to say something is wrong when it clearly is.

As Father Verrett, Andre Braugher is a time bomb waiting for an excuse to go off. Verrett thought he'd found it in Baltimore, where he'd organized a strike against his own church. But the local archbishop simply exiled him to his native Louisiana.

It isn't long before Father Verrett's pride runs afoul of the religious hierarchy -- mostly in the form of his more-cautious mentor, Father Robert Grant (a dour Rip Torn). He also doesn't get much initial support from the players and their parents, who aren't sure they're prepared for the consequences of rocking the boat.

Although the script from Harold Sylvester, who was a member of the St. Augustine team, tends toward cliche when some insight would help -- we learn what makes Father Verrett angry, but not what made him a priest -- "Passing Glory" is another one of those timely reminders of how idiotic distinctions of race are.

And kudos to Sylvester for not making Father Verrett perfect; when his impromptu decision to desegregate a diner places himself and a busload of high-school boys in danger, the priest's flaws become apparent and very human.

Less laudable is how the script plays with fact -- especially the outcome of the game. In real life, the Purple Knights cleaned the Jesuits' clock, winning by more than 20 points. Why that outcome wasn't good enough for "Passing Glory" says something about how little trust TV executives sometimes have in their audience. Does every TV basketball game have to end on a last-second shot? Would audiences not sit still for a blowout? After all, the game is only the last 15 minutes of the film.

Director Steve James, who was responsible for the justly acclaimed basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams," could use a little more flash, but his stolid method of storytelling at least never gets in the way of the story.

Braugher and Torn have a nice dynamic together, and Braugher's Father Verrett is a worthy successor to Frank Pembleton of "Homicide": Both men are too smart to suffer stupidity gladly but too self-righteous to be an easy hero.

Steiner on welfare, Secor

Welfare is the scheduled topic of today's first hour of "The Marc Steiner Show," as Johns Hopkins University political science Professor Matthew Crenson talks about his book, "Building the Invisible Orphanage: A Prehistory of the American Welfare System."

Monday, Steiner's guest during the first hour of his show will be actor Kyle Secor of "Homicide: Life On the Street."

"The Marc Steiner Show" airs weekdays from noon to 2 p.m. on WJHU-FM (88.1).

Radio show on slavery

"Remembering Slavery," a two-hour look at the "peculiar institution," as recalled by those who actually lived it, airs tomorrow on WEAA-FM (88.9).

The Smithsonian Productions project, with host Tonea Stewart, uses both recordings of former slaves collected in the 1920s and 1930s and narratives read by James Earl Jones, Debbie Allen, the late Esther Rolle and others.

The first hour of "Remembering Slavery" is set for 6 p.m. tomorrow, with the second hour slated for 6 p.m. Friday.

`Stalkings' to end

"Silk Stalkings," the USA cable series that regularly featured some of television's most beautiful corpses -- that's what happens when the dead people are from Palm Beach, Fla. -- is closing its casebook after eight seasons.

Viewership of the series peaked in 1995, when an average 2.2 million homes watched original cast members (and beautiful people) Mimi Kapture and Rob Estes track down the bad guys. Ratings began to slip the following year, when Nick Kokotakis and Tyler Layton took over the detecting duties; Chris Potter and Janet Gunn took over in fall 1996.

The latest ratings showed an average of 1.6 million viewers watching the show on Sunday nights.

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