Tracing the 'Color Line'

In a PBS documentary, Harvard humanities professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores what life is like today among all classes of African-Americans.

February 02, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A renowned Harvard University professor who is attempting to document African-American life 35 years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visits one of the most wretched public housing projects in the nation, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes.

The professor, Henry Henry Louis Gates Jr., and his small film crew stand in a dirty, graffiti-scarred lobby waiting for an elevator to take them to the 11th floor, where the professor will interview a 30-year resident of the building. He wants to ask her how she thinks things have gone for African-Americans in the years since the death of Dr. King.

There are two elevators, but only one is working in the tower where some 1,000 residents live. When it finally arrives, it is so rickety, hot and crowded, that Gates is afraid to ride in it. He turns instead to a stairwell down the hall.

"I'm claustrophobic in elevators, anyway," he says in voiceover as the camera follows his long, slow journey up the stairs. "After 15 minutes, thinking about the heat inside that electric casket, I head for the stairs. I'd rather walk than get trapped in that thing. But this is routine for people here."

A fear of ramshackle elevators may seem trivial, but this scene exemplifies the small, human touches that make America Beyond the Color Line gleam with honesty amid a season of trumped-up reality shows. The provocative and illuminating two-part documentary airs tomorrow and Wednesday nights on PBS.

The film of Gates climbing steps as he admits his phobia, radiates such authenticity that joining him seems like the most natural thing in the world to do. As he climbs, the narration and images are skillfully combined to evoke how it feels on the hot and sticky stairway, how it feels to live in the run-down building.

America Beyond the Color Line offers viewers a rare chance to journey through various parts of black culture and life with an engaging and genuinely wise guide. And as he plumbs "the color line," Gates, the W.E.B DuBois professor of humanities at Harvard, doesn't limit his investigations to the Chicago housing projects. (The show's title comes from DuBois who said the great problem of 20th century American life is "the problem of the color line.")

The first segment begins as Gates travels to Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta - the holy cities of the Civil Rights movement - tracing the migration of African-Americans back to the South. Along the way, he interviews residents of military bases, politicians, policemen and celebrities including movie star Morgan Freeman and poet Maya Angelou. He also speaks with residents of all-black, gated, suburban communities where the homes start at $750,000.

He doesn't mince words when describing these exclusive enclaves as "segregation." He ends the hour sitting beside the tomb of King, whom he identifies as his "hero," wondering about blacks who choose to live only with "people in their own class who look like them."

"When I think about all that Dr. King lived for and died for - and in a word that vision was integration - I can't help but wonder what Dr. King would think of this whole thing," Gates says.

He leaves the Deep South to visit Chicago, then New York and Washington where he sits down with such African-Americans of corporate and political achievement as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, power- broker Vernon Jordan, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Franklin Raines, the CEO of the Fannie Mae Corp. On the heels of interviewing Simmons, Gates listens as Powell condemns, in no uncertain terms, many of the images and messages pumped into the popular culture by black entrepreneurs such as Simmons.

Gates' quest to chart the main currents of African-American life concludes in California where so many great American journeys end. In an effort to understand the role of "cultural gatekeepers" in the making and selling of black images, he talks to stars such as Samuel L. Jackson, Nia Long, Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker and Alicia Keys. The producers with whom he visits include composer Quincy Jones and Regency Films founder Arnon Milchan.

Gates asks Cheadle point blank if he thinks efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have been helpful in opening doors for persons of color in Hollywood, and the actor says no.

"This isn't bricklaying, it's acting," Cheadle says. ""It's not as simple as just saying we need more numbers."

The film also explores the rarely discussed issue of differences in opportunity based on shades of skin color among African-Americans. As Gates puts it, "If you're light, you're all right. If you're brown, hang around. But if you're black, you better get back." The black actors to whom he speaks, say African-Americans themselves help enforce the standard.

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