Black and white and brilliant

The two-hour 'Homicide' reunion movie reminds us how important and honest this show could be.

February 13, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Last year as "Homicide: Life on the Street" was fighting for its life, I happened to mention to executive producer Tom Fontana that the series had been praised by Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. These accolades -- for the show's insights into race and social class -- had come during a taping of Mfume's "The Bottom Line" talk show that was devoted to "Homicide."

"That's nice," Fontana said, cutting me off. "What would have been really nice, though, is if those words had meant some Image Awards from the NAACP for the show. We could use the help right about now." The Image Awards are given annually by the NAACP for positive images of African-Americans in TV, movies, books and music. In this year's 31st annual Image Awards program, "Homicide" did get a belated nomina- tion --Michael Michele, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. Fontana's remark kept coming back to me last week as I watched and re-watched "Homicide: The Movie," one of the best reunion movies ever.

There are dozens of wonderful moments in this reunion that have little or nothing to do with race, like the re-teaming of Detective Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) with John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Bolander's constant warnings, "Don't start agitatin' me, Munch." There's a final scene that is close enough to the all-time great series finales, like those of "St. Elsewhere" and "Newhart," that I don't think you will ever forget.

But, in light of the public discussion we've been having since July, when Mfume excoriated the networks for their lack of on-screen diversity, watching the film makes me wonder how anyone could believe network television cares a whit about minority images.

When NBC canceled "Homicide" and none of the other networks tried to pick it up, it gave the lie to all the high-sounding talk about diversity in all those agreements that the networks have been signing in recent weeks with the NAACP. Especially galling was NBC's acknowledgment that "Homicide" was as commercially viable as some of the shows it did renew, like "Profiler."

No series in the history of prime-time television has explored African-American identity as intelligently and conscientiously as "Homicide" has. CBS' much ballyhooed doctor drama, "City of Angels," doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. And all that wisdom and excellence in writing and performance is there to see tonight in "Homicide: The Movie."

Start with Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), which is where the movie begins. As Giardello, now Baltimore's leading mayoral candidate, begins to speak at an Inner Harbor campaign rally, he's gunned down. While emergency room doctors, including one played by Ed Begley Jr. of "St. Elsewhere," work to save Giardello, detectives old and new, ranging from Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) to a hot dog named Bobby Hall (Jason Priestley of "Beverly Hills, 90210"), gather to find the gunman.

Typical of the script's attention to detail and social commentary, the placards for Giardello are done in the colors of Italy, a reference to Giardello's Italian ancestry. It is also a wry reference to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's last campaign in which he had placards in the colors of Africa, with the words "He Makes Us Proud." Schmoke, playing himself as mayor of Baltimore, is standing on the podium to greet Candidate Giardello.

In an interview last week, Kotto told me he saw Giardello as "a character who's larger than life, an African-American John Wayne or Gary Cooper kind of character."

If you think about urban America as the violent and potentially lawless frontier many believe it to be, Kotto is absolutely right. It's a profound notion that the character who ultimately stands for law and order on this frontier is a person of color -- given our national history of portraying such persons as the threat that needs to be tamed.

And Giardello is not a one-dimensional character with an unknown personal life like, say, Lt. Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel) on "NYPD Blue." We know a lot about his inner life, his complicated sense of identity, his childhood, his son and daughter. All of that plays out in flashbacks and a dream sequence in which Kotto absolutely sparkles.

And then there's Pembleton. I have written so many analyses, reviews, farewells and appreciations of Pembleton and Braugher over the years, I didn't think I had any more capacity to appreciate the character or the actor. But the minute I saw Pembleton walk on screen, I fell in love all over again.

Pembleton, who has left his new job as professor at a Jesuit college to help solve the case, is everywhere tonight. And God's avenging angel has many fine moments. One that comes early involves Pembleton putting the fear of God into a recalcitrant suspect/witness whom he and his old partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), are questioning in The Box.

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