HBO hits hard with `Just Evil' tomorrow

Preview: We may not like hearing about the depraved behavior of Melvin Just, but it's important that we do.

April 21, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Just, Melvin: Just Evil" is just an incredibly intense television viewing experience. In fact, it is so intense I found myself wondering during the HBO documentary, which tells the story of a man so depraved that he forced himself sexually on his own children when some were as young as 3 years old, whether this should even be on Sunday night prime-time television.

After much thought, I say not only should it be on, but HBO should also be commended for airing it right after "The Sopranos" tomorrow night, giving it the best chance for an audience of several million viewers. As shocking as it is, this is exactly the kind of truth-telling in an adult-only time period that television needs to do if we are to become a wiser and more compassionate culture.

The kind of incest and stepchild molestation this film explores is exactly the kind of ugly secret too many of us are all too happy to ignore in the name of propriety, while innocent victims not only have their childhood violated but also their ability to enjoy their adult lives destroyed. This is the kind of documentary that is behind HBO winning all those Emmy, Oscar and Peabody awards.

"Just, Melvin" is a stunning work of autobiography by first-time filmmaker James Ronald Whitney, who as a child was himself sexually molested by a relative.

"I was 5 when one of my uncles molested me," Whitney says in the film. "It was down in the basement where my mom made apple jelly."

You might say child molestation is a family tradition within Whitney's family; Melvin Just, the monster to whom the title refers, is Whitney's grandfather. At the heart of the film is Whitney's journey back through all the horrors committed by his grandfather and all the suffering it caused his mother and aunts and uncles.

Whitney promises viewers early on that he is going to confront his grandfather with all the evil the old man has done. As Whitney says in the film, by the time he's through, his grandfather will "either be in jail or he'll be dead."

I can tell you that Whitney keeps his promise, but I won't risk spoiling the viewing experience by telling you how.

By way of warning, you should know the film includes graphic descriptions of Just raping a 5-year-old daughter who was born with severe deformities of her lower body. You will also hear one of the daughters talk about the physical scars she still bears on her vagina from one of Just's more depraved forms of assault on her when she was a child.

Just when the testimony of past abuse and current psychological suffering seems too awful to bear, the film cuts to Whitney at the piano playing a soundtrack that he composed for the movie. The rhythm of the cuts from the nightmare inflicted by the evil old man to the affirmation of Whitney's music drives the film to its dramatic mountaintop of confrontation between generations.

On a personal level, the film is clearly an effort by Whitney to break the culture of abuse that still grips his family. On a macro level, it is an effort to show the ravages of such abuse upon succeeding generations.

"I know my family is not exactly normal," Whitney says.

He's right about that. But with one out of every seven children in the United States having been sexually molested, according to figures provided by Childhelp USA, Whitney's family is sadly more "normal" than it should be.

`Just, Melvin: Just Evil'

When: Tomorrow night at 10

Where: HBO

In brief: A powerful documentary on the evil and silence of child molestation.

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