Hollywood finally addresses suffering in war-torn Sudan

September 26, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

SUDAN'S CIVIL war has been raging for 16 years. The predominantly Arab and Muslim north has the backing of the Arab world. The Christian and animist blacks of the south have the backing of almost no one.

Until, that is, this past Tuesday. Southern Sudan's blacks received the backing of a few U.S. congressmen, a few U.S. senators and -- most surprising of all -- Hollywood.

Hollywood's support will be made manifest tonight, in the season-opening episode of the popular television show "Touched by an Angel."

The episode in question, while good drama, is not without flaw.

The actor who plays a southern Sudanese is -- with the complexion of an average African-American -- far too light for the part. Southern Sudanese are jet black -- which might be why Hollywood's African-Americans haven't flocked to their cause.

A preview of the episode -- a drama about slavery and civil war in Sudan titled "For Such a Time as This" -- aired Tuesday in a room of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Martha Williamson, the producer of "Touched by an Angel" who also wrote the episode, was on hand. So were Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, both Republicans.

Brownback is the sponsor of the Sudan Peace Act, which he introduced in July. The legislation, Brownback said, calls for giving direct food aid and developmental assistance to the areas of Sudan controlled by the resistance movement.

"It's a big step forward because it moves us off the dime of not supporting either side and moves us to supporting the rebel side," Brownback said.

"It's somewhat amazing to me that we've had 2.3 million people killed and 4 million displaced and we haven't intervened," noted Watts, who is sponsoring the Sudan Peace Act in the House of Representatives. "We inter- vened in Kosovo, and the human rights violations haven't been as great."

Before the preview, politicians and fans of the show availed themselves of refreshments provided. A steady stream of autograph-seekers kept Roma Downey, who plays the lead role of Monica on the show, busy. Williamson deftly performed the double duty of greeting admirers and fielding questions from reporters at the same time.

One of the questions was how Williamson became interested in doing a story about civil war and slavery in the faraway Sudan.

"Some members of Congress met with me at a national prayer breakfast," Williamson explained. They asked if she would write a show depicting the plight of southern Sudanese blacks in their struggle against government forces.

"I thought, `My heavens, the Sudan. Yikes!' " Williamson remembered. But she decided to research the problem. She read press clippings and government documents, watched videos and talked to senators -- Brownback in particular.

"I stood up and took notice when I learned there was slavery in Sudan," Williamson said, admitting that a story about another in a string of civil wars on the African continent might not have drawn her attention.

Actress Lindsay Crouse, who plays a U.S. senator in the episode, made a connection with slavery in Sudan before she agreed to do the show.

"I had taken my daughter to Harvard Square," Crouse recalled. "We saw two beautiful black women who had literature on slavery in Sudan." Crouse went home that night and someone had slipped a script for the show under her door.

"I don't believe that was a coincidence," she said.

Williamson, a deeply religious woman who says her show always focuses on the theme that God exists, believes the deity's hand was manifest not only in Crouse's experience, but in Williamson's decision to do the show.

"I asked the Lord, `How on earth do I make this story?' " Williamson said. It came to her the day she got in her car and started the engine. Someone had borrowed her car and left the radio on.

"I never listen to the radio when I'm in the car," Williamson emphasized. But as the radio played, she heard a song written and performed by Wayne Watson called "For Such a Time as This."

The song inspired Williamson to write the script and include the song in the story. (You may have guessed by now that Watson also was on hand Tuesday night.)

Another reporter asked Williamson why the millions dead and displaced haven't inspired worldwide outrage.

"Let's be blunt," she answered. "There's not a lot of trade that goes on in the Sudan and they're black people in Africa. This should not be an issue of racism, but look at how slow we are to pick up on what's happening in Africa."

An even better question would have been why none of Hollywood's African-American producers was inspired to do a show on the plight of southern Sudanese.

This crop of Nervous Nellie Nitwits has been ducking the issue long enough. They should either do what Williamson has done or just 'fess up to the fact that African-Americans are still color-struck and that the jet-black blacks of the southern Sudan are just a little too black for our comfort.

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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