Two movements, common history

Preview: The black experience comes alive in these stunning tales of labor and civil rights -- '10,000 Black Men Named George' and `The Rosa Parks Story.'

February 23, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Both 10,000 Black Men Named George and The Rosa Parks Story are major Black History Month films worthy of your time and the best hopes for such specially themed programs. The problem is you can't watch both at the same time tomorrow night.

In the end, the choice between them, though, is not that tough. While Angela Bassett is impressive as the woman often called the "mother" of the civil rights movement, Showtime's 10,000 Black Men Named George is one of those made-for-TV movies that has an important story to tell and the kind of directing and acting that make it hard to imagine how it could have been told any better.

The roster of talent alone is staggering by the standards of most made-for-TV movies. The executive producers are Abby Mann, Andre Braugher and the late Stan Margulies. Mann, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg, stepped in when Margulies, the co-producer of Roots, died just before filming started.

The director is Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle and Five Heartbeats), and the cast he has to work with includes Braugher, Charles S. Dutton, Mario Van Peebles and Brock Peters. There are not 20 seconds in any of their performances that don't snap, crackle and light up the screen.

The story they tell is that of union organizer and publisher A. Philip Randolph and the start of the black labor movement in the 1920s and '30s. This is not a history often taught in schools or much discussed in the mainstream press. But without it, you cannot really understand the civil rights movement.

Randolph, a socialist who published The Messenger magazine in Harlem from 1925 to 1937, organized the porters on Pullman trains into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937 at the height of the Depression.

"The Pullman porters were a demonstrable example of the ability to organize and demand changes not only in the workplace, but eventually in terms of federal law," Braugher says, explaining how black labor organizing laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. Randolph was a hero to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Onscreen, Braugher as Randolph is marvelous -- as he almost always is. You're watching him play Randolph and thinking, "This is as good as it gets," and then his tightly wrapped, highly intellectual character travels to Chicago to try and enlist the help of a porter named Milton Webster, a flamboyant, bare-knuckled, gambling man played by Dutton.

The second these two come on screen together, you realize how wrong you were: Good can get better, and the film takes off like a runaway train. Set the VCR: Braugher and Dutton, with their characters bumping heads and then joining forces to take on the bosses, is more viewing pleasure than anyone has a right to expect from a TV movie. The only question here is how the trophies are going to be divided among this crew come Emmy time.

It is unfair to compare The Rosa Parks Story with 10,000 Black Men Named George because it is such a different kind of movie. Whereas the power in 10,000 Black Men is most keenly felt during loud and public moments in union halls or on picket lines, Rosa is at its most powerful in quiet and intimate scenes between Parks (Bassett) and her husband, Raymond (Peter Francis James).

Rosa is essentially a private story that seeks to explain the social conditions that led to the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 by exploring the history and psychology of the 42-year-old seamstress who set the boycott in motion by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Bassett and director Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) succeed in giving us a woman instead of an icon.

There is one public scene that will give you goose bumps, though: a young Martin Luther King in the pulpit on the eve of the boycott with Parks listening to him preach. King is played by his son, Dexter Scott King, and the moment is transcendent.

Black History films

What: 10,000 Black Men Named George

When: tomorrow night at 8

Where: Showtime

In brief: Braugher and Dutton dazzle.

What: The Rosa Parks Story

When: tomorrow night at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Parks as a woman instead of an icon.

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