Conversation On Race Continues


Cnn Documentary Focuses On Pioneers, Future Leaders

July 19, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

Documentaries are not supposed to be able to attract huge, mainstream audiences. Just ask all the TV networks that don't make them any more, claiming attention spans are too short for such long-form programming.

But CNN turned that notion on its head a year ago with Black in America, a documentary reported by Soledad O'Brien that was seen by 16 million people in the middle of the summer and helped ignite one of the most intense and widespread discussions of any TV production of the year. And most of the talk it generated was about race, a subject that TV had a long history of mostly trying to avoid until last year and the arrival of the nation's first black presidential candidate of a major party.

CNN returns to the topic this week for four hours across Wednesday and Thursday with Black in America 2, a sequel with every bit as much power and passion as the original. In fact, Black in America 2 might prove to be an even more moving TV experience for some viewers.

Whereas last year's model focused on the experiences of black women and families one night and black men the next, this year's follow-up focuses on what the executive producer describes as "today's pioneers" and "tomorrow's leaders" - African-American men and women who are making some remarkable efforts to provide solutions to the problems of American life. There is an inherent lift in that kind of narrative - and while you might not be inspired, you can't help but be impressed by some of the people you meet in this film.

"Black in America last year generated a viral conversation online. It generated a conversation on talk radio. It generated a conversation in magazines, in churches, in homes," executive producer Mark Nelson said in a telephone interview last week. "What we wanted to do was listen to that conversation. And one of the things we heard is that there are a ton of solutions that are taking place out there. We found people who are creating those solutions and have had incredible success. And that's what we wanted to cast a spotlight on in Black in America 2."

While the documentary is steeped in an informed and nuanced sense of race and sociology, it is never pedantic. That's because the storytelling is about people. O'Brien and a team that includes some of the best producers working in television make us care about the people at the heart of each story, and the rest flows organically from that.

Among the pioneers highlighted Wednesday night is University of Michigan surgeon Dr. Lisa Newman, who is studying the role African ancestry might play in a certain kind of highly aggressive breast cancer. CNN's producers not only follow her back to Ghana and around the U.S. on her research projects, they also sensitively track one of her patients who is battling the disease.

And just in case that isn't enough movement and drama for some viewers, the producers reveal early in the report that Newman has just discovered a lump in her own breast and is going in for a biopsy. As the story of her research unfolds, viewers await news on Newman's fate.

Actor, writer and filmmaker Tyler Perry is also profiled as a pioneer, and he certainly deserves it. But neither O'Brien nor the producers treat him with kid gloves in deference to his millions of devoted fans.

They engagingly chronicle his incredible career and accomplishments, even as they deftly use his story to show the disconnect between the white Hollywood power structure and black audiences. But they also bring in a black cultural analyst who offers a harsh critique of the images in some of Perry's work. As good as the landmark CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes is, it rarely balances portraits of major cultural figures with any tough criticism of their work. Good for CNN in trying to offer a multidimensional look at the man and his work - though it will probably catch some heat for it.

Nelson, vice president and senior executive producer of CNN Productions, says such heat is part of the price you pay for trying to bring light to complicated and sometimes controversial topics.

"Look, a lot of people loved what they saw last year, but a lot of people thought that they would have liked to see other stuff - and that's fine," Nelson says, referring to complaints from some black critics that the original Black in America wasn't uniformly positive enough for their tastes. "But it looked at people and issues, and it looked at them fairly and objectively. One thing has to be made very clear: This is not programming for black Americans, this is programming for all Americans."

The stories told in Thursday's two-hour segment focus on young leaders and the kind of students who look to provide the next generation of leadership. And while all of them are black, the narratives of promise, risk, sacrifice, achievement and progress are universal.

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