Complex character goes unexplored

Preview: Adam Clayton Powell Jr.'s story gets hackneyed treatment in a new Showtime movie.

February 16, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Showtime has an advertising slogan to promote its slate of Black History Month programming in February: "Strong. Spirited. Real. The Stories on Showtime." Keep the Faith, Baby, a docudrama starring Harry Lennix and Vanessa Williams, in the story of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is none of the three. And it makes me kind of mad.

One goal of Black History Month is to use television is to tell a mass audience stories about the African-American experience - especially stories that the mainstream media might not have told well, or told at all. I suspect that Powell's story, which primarily took place in 1940s, '50s and '60s, was filtered through the racist culture and journalism of the time.

The controversial politician from Harlem was sworn into the U.S. Congress in 1945 and stripped of his chairmanship of the prestigious education committee by his colleagues in 1967. The rare vote was taken following a Congressional investigation after Powell was accused of absenteeism and abusing travel funds. Powell also was charged with income tax evasion in connection with his other life as minister of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Only a fool looks for historic truth in television docudrama. Instead, I was looking for a compelling story that would help me understand the man and the arc of his life, as well as putting the journalistic accounts of that life in perspective. Again, Showtime batted 0 for 3.

The script employs one of the most hackneyed of narratives: Young reporter tracks down historic figure who tells the story of his or her life in flashbacks. The formula last was used effectively in 1974 for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittmann, the landmark ABC movie based on Ernest J. Gaines' novel. Since then, it has been badly imitated too many times to count. This is a new low in lack of inspiration.

The reporter here, Joe Shiller (Russell Hornsby), finds Powell in the Bimini Islands after the 1967 vote in the House that brought the congressman down. Reluctantly, Powell starts to tell the young man his story - one generation talking to the next.

And, so, we flash back to Harlem in the 1930s as Powell takes over the pulpit of Abyssinian Baptist from his father. What a chance to explore the role of the African-American church in political life in pre-war-America!

But that chance is wasted as the film creates a New York that resembles a Broadway staging of a Damon Runyan play. Part of the problem here is scope. Everything from the church to the street scenes looks small --- as if it had been shot on the studio back lot and made on the cheap.

The only good thing about the film is that it doesn't try to argue away all of Powell's sins - even though it's produced by two of his sons. For instance, he spread rumors that Dr. Martin Luther King and one of his aides, the openly homosexual journalist Bayard Rustin, were lovers.

My advice: If you want to see Showtime do black history better, wait until Feb. 24 for 10,000 Black Men Named George, with Andre Braugher, Charles Dutton and Mario Van Pebbles about union organizer A. Philip Randolph. As for Powell, if you want to know about him, go to the library and look for Adam Clayton Powell: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma by Charles V. Hamilton.

That's what I did.

Tomorrow's TV

What: Keep the Faith, Baby

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: So much was possible, so little realized in this docudrama.

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