By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Going back to such ancient classics as "The Plow That Broke the Plains" and "Harvest of Shame," the best documentaries have been those that engage the heart as well as the brain. Two new entries in CNN's ongoing "Black in America" project manage precisely that feat, reporting in words and pictures of equal expressiveness on the current state of African American life in the United States.
A viewer is likely to come away with memories not of statistics but of images -- the real-life anecdotes and vignettes that supplement numbers with faces and experiences. In Part 1, airing tonight, among the most poignant stories is that of a 60-year-old woman, whom we first meet apologizing for her tears as she languishes in a Harlem hospital bed, correspondent Soledad O'Brien at her side.
Later, after the woman is released from the hospital and back in the poor neighborhood she calls home, we follow her as she embarks on a visit to the supermarket -- the nearest one being 20 blocks away at 110th and Broadway. For the woman, O'Brien says, that means an hour's trip via public transportation just to buy a tomato. It's no way to live, but she's living it.
Clearly the result of exhaustive research and reportage, "The Black Woman & Family" (airing tonight) and "The Black Man" (tomorrow night) are rife with evidence that for many African Americans, the American dream is still far beyond arm's reach. For some, it's more daydream than dream, so distant is its promise and realization.
But the report is not a lament. Forward steps are acknowledged and documented. Signs of progress are duly noted. Instances of racial conflict and surviving stereotypes are countered with stories of harmony and stereotypes smashed.
And one special promise -- though largely unspoken -- informs both two-hour broadcasts: the idea that America has arrived at a momentous crossroads spearheaded by the candidacy of Barack Obama, potentially the first black president of the United States. It would be folly to prophesy sweeping reform overnight, and yet great expectations are irresistible. On the other hand, there are African Americans who think an Obama presidency could actually hurt their cause, lulling the country into imagining greater progress on defeating racism than has occurred.
In the program, watershed moments of the past are also evoked -- the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 45 years since his "I Had a Dream" speech and the 50th anniversary last year of the turbulent integration of Little Rock Central High School. O'Brien talks to some of those who were there.
In one of the program's most disheartening moments, a man who was in high school at the time remembers Southern white children laughing and applauding the news of King's death. At least such memories allow us the luxury of feeling we've come a long way -- and the hope that conditions will never deteriorate to such an abhorrent level again. "Never," of course, is a high-risk word.
O'Brien, an engagingly relaxed yet persistent interviewer, makes it plain from the outset that she is not looking for easy answers or politically correct platitudes. She reports the encouraging and the discouraging with dispassionate impartiality.
Tonight's program opens with a salubrious report on a singular family reunion: the gathering of generations of Rands in Atlanta. What makes the Rand band notable in the context of the documentary is that family historians have traced the family back to England and to a landowner named William Rand, who had a white wife and a black mistress -- and beaucoup children by both. Thus do white descendants meet black and pose for smiling family photos. O'Brien struggles to hold on her lap a gigantic scrapbook that includes the family tree, as well as data on the far-flung Rands and how they grew.
Throughout all four hours, seeming "good news" competes with bad for dominance. One shameful fact of life in black America surfaces more than once: Parents recall the moment they sat their children down and instructed them how to behave if ever stopped by the police. The advice is uniform: to "cower," as one parent says, casting all self-respect aside and groveling before authority figures who could find, even invent, an excuse to be abusive.
In tomorrow's Part 2, comedian D.L. Hughley says he knows that skin color matters to cops and says he has warned his son to be sheepishly compliant in any dealings with the police. The impressions are supported by one of O'Brien's ever-ready statistics: Seventy-five percent of African Americans believe they are treated more harshly than whites by the "criminal justice system."
Other celebrities who figure in the reportage include filmmaker Spike Lee, showbiz entrepreneur Russell Simmons and actress Whoopi Goldberg, who says bluntly, "Thank God for the welfare system" because it helped her survive early years of demoralizing poverty and raise a daughter as a single mother. She says she is distressed, however, by "reforms" in welfare that have made it less accessible to those who need it.
The most memorable personalities in "Black in America" are not the celebrities but the everyday people whose experiences reflect aspects of the African American experience. There's a man born Kenneth -- he later changed that to a West African name -- who talks frankly about robbing the only bank in Sherrill, Ark., to get drug money at age 22 (he revisits the site with O'Brien), for which he was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
His story is an example of the savage toll taken by crack cocaine, especially on black Americans, during the crack craze of the 1970s and '80s. "It was better than sex" when he first used it, he recalls, but his life became the proverbial "living hell" once he was hooked. He is now a preacher and counselor to youth: "I didn't find God; God found me."
A man known as Butch epitomizes the emergent black middle class. He moved into a previously all-white suburb (and experienced little hostility from neighbors, he says), drives a Mercedes, says he "can't wait to go to work" each morning and has raised three sons. The happy story takes a downward turn; one son was involved in a "drug-related" shooting.
As a documentary must contain statistics, it must also have a contingent of experts. In the case of "Black in America," those have been particularly well chosen -- especially Roland G. Fryer Jr., 31, an economics professor who this year became the youngest African American ever to receive tenure at Harvard. He makes several appearances throughout the documentary, always with something insightful or provocative to add.
Some of the editing tricks in "Black in America" are irritating or at least repetitious -- a kind of progressive cutting, one-two-three -- of ever-closer shots as a talking head talks. It's an attempt to animate a static shot, but viewers should be given more credit: The picture doesn't always have to move for people to be engaged. Sometimes we even listen to the words.
The words and the pictures of these four remarkable hours complement and supplement each other. There's little if any waste; the report has been edited to a tight, bright pace that makes it seem considerably shorter than it is. "Black in America" looms as a tremendous accomplishment for O'Brien and for the many producers, editors and crew members who poured themselves into it. And if no good comes of it, it won't be their fault.
The two-part Black in America series debuts tonight with "The Black Woman & Family" (two hours) on CNN at 9; "The Black Man" (two hours) airs tomorrow night at 9.