Intelligent, two-sided approach to issues of race

Shows on PBS and ABC -- including Disney -- shed light, not heat

Television

January 19, 2003|By David Zurawik | By David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

You might not think of watching television as an appropriate way to memorialize a man as serious and committed as Martin Luther King Jr.

Television tends to subvert holidays even as it embraces them, sucking dry their true meaning and spitting them out, repackaged and trivialized, as a theme-park parade of cartoon characters or sappy made-for-TV movie.

But television this week -- thanks largely to three stirring documentaries on PBS, along with a Nightline town hall meeting and an exceptional Disney movie on ABC -- will offer one of the most informed discussions of race and thoughtful analyses of civil rights history available anywhere in our culture. It is a tribute to the greatness and power of Martin Luther King Jr. that the medium, rather than perverting the late civil rights leader's legacy, has been inspired by it to present meaningful and enlightened programming.

One show in particular, Two Towns of Jasper, a documentary filmed in the Texas town where in 1998 a black man was chained behind a pickup truck and dragged to his death, presents a new and better way of looking at race on-screen.

Since the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, the model that has guided most television coverage of race is that of two Americas, one black and one white. Made by two directors, one African-American and one white, Two Towns takes that model to its logical extreme.

Through interviews with townspeople, the documentary, which was filmed during the trials of the three men charged with killing Jasper resident James Byrd Jr., uses attitudes about the case to explore deeper feelings about race.

Whitney Dow, the white director, worked with an all-white crew and filmed only on the white side of town. Marco Williams, the African-American director, worked with an all-black crew and filmed only on the black side of town. The real triumph of Two Towns is the way it ultimately explodes the model by presenting a sensitive and nuanced picture of race relations as they occur throughout society, not just in Jasper, but in communities throughout the land.

"There's no doubt that the concept of a black director and white director is a hook that will hopefully bring people to the film. But once they start to watch, our belief is that viewers will start to understand that the film goes beyond the hook to show a more subtle picture of racism and race," said Marco Williams, the 46-year-old African-American half of the directing team.

"Our hope is that viewers will make connections back to their own lives and communities and get it that Jasper isn't somewhere "down there" or somewhere other than the place in which they live. Jasper is America."

ABC News' Nightline gets it. The program will devote two shows -- on Tuesday and Thursday nights -- to the film and will produce a town hall meeting held in Jasper led by Ted Koppel and carried live on PBS Thursday during prime time.

"Normally, we would never have Ted do something for someone other than ABC," said Tom Bettag, Nightline's executive producer. "But David Westin [president of ABC News] gave his permission, saying this documentary is significant enough that we should go ahead and do it. This is not like anything we have ever done or probably will ever do again. But David agreed that this documentary is that powerful and important."

'Sounder' remake

You can observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday beginning tonight with the "Wonderful World of Disney's" remake of the young person's classic, Sounder, which arrives 30 years after the feature-film debut. I know Disney is the very conglomerate responsible for commercializing and trivializing much of our national mythology, but every so often, ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney" actually does make a truly wonderful TV movie, like Cinderella, which featured the African-American actress Brandy playing the lead.

Add this version of Sounder to the A-list. The resonant coming-of-age story plays the mythic chords of adolescent Southern memory as well any this side of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. This is the same hardscrabble, Depression-era South as that of A Christmas Memory, but here it is seen from the African-American point of view. I can't think of a better way outside the classroom to make sure that the ugly economic and racial facts of life from that era are not forgotten generation to generation. There's an added treat for local viewers: A Baltimore teen, Daniel Lee Robertson III stars in Sounder. It airs at 7 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Tomorrow night, PBS takes the lead with two stirring documentaries, The Murder of Emmett Till, from the "American Experience" series, and Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin, from the equally prestigious "P.O.V." independent film showcase.

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