MTV takes a stand against discrimination

Campaign: The music behemoth kicks off a year of public service with an original movie. It's not only good, it also just might do some good.

January 10, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

MTV is not known for its original movies, but it has an important one premiering tonight, "Anatomy of a Hate Crime," a dramatization of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo.

The film, which tells the story of a gay college student beaten, strung up on a fence and left to die, is a powerful statement about homophobia. But MTV will seek to heighten the film's impact by following it with a 30-minute news special on hate crimes and then shutting down its regular programming altogether to run a scroll listing the names of hundreds of victims of hate crimes.

Starting at 10 tonight, the scroll will run continuously across the darkened screen for 17 1/2 hours, as the channel kicks off a yearlong public service campaign called "Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Discrimination." Regular programming will not resume until 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, according to MTV.

"Anatomy of a Hate Crime" is not only a good movie, but also one with the potential to do good. Unlike many anti-hate messages that preach at young viewers telling them that it is bad to hate, this film is good enough to make them feel how wrong hate is in their hearts.

"Anatomy of a Hate Crime" opens with headlines following the discovery of Shepard's body and news footage of the demonstrations mounted by gay rights groups in Laramie in reaction to it. The montage closes on a police officer telling reporters, "The victim was 21 years of age, 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and weighed 105 pounds. His skull had been struck 18 times with a handgun."

The opening credits then play over images of a lonely stretch of highway and a sign that says, "Welcome to Laramie." As the camera pans across a field next to the highway, we hear a voice-over saying, "Things don't just happen. There are always reasons. After I died, many people had a lot of things to say about me and why I was killed. But we'll never understand this crime if we only look at me."

Then we see a handsome young man walk into the picture out in the field. He has a friendly face, and he is walking to the fence on which Shepard was impaled.

As he resumes the opening monologue, we realize this is Matthew Shepard. The conceit of having Shepard speaking to us from the grave is a risky one, but the filmmakers pull it off. The result isthat it gives Shepard's words a great moral authority as he starts to tell the tale in flashback.

Tension is established and steadily built by juxtaposing the narrative of Shepard's life as an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming with the lives of the two young men from Laramie who killed him. The one who repeatedly smashed in Shepard's head, Russell Henderson, is made comprehensible by a smart script and an outstanding performance from Ian Somerhalder.

Again, the filmmakers - producers Lawrence Bender ("Good Will Hunting") and Kevin Brown ("Soul of the Game") - take a big risk in humanizing someone who committed such a monstrous act. But they are wise enough to understand that the only way we will understand our own capacity for hate is to recognize our own worst impulses and passions in the killers.

In the end, this is what makes "Anatomy of Hate Crime" a film worthy of being judged as art rather than just propaganda. This is also the reason anyone with teen-age sons or daughters who hopes their children will become decent and caring adults should go out of their way to make this film must-see TV.

Movie premiere

What: `Anatomy of a Hate Crime'

Where: MTV

When: 8 tonight

In brief: A smart and moving dramatization of the Matthew Shepard murder.

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