"Beulah Land" is not suitable for human habitation. The first two chapters of this six-hour NBC mini-series about a Southern plantation are so clatteringly, clumsily awful they're pretty funny, but in the third chapter it turns ugly and hateful and leaves one feeling nauseated.
We must remember to bring up idiotic, inept, cynically exploitative travesties like this one the next time NBC president Fred Silverman is boasting about his generous contributions to the quality of life. If he had a firmer grasp on the concepts of decency and responsibility, he would go on the air and apologize for not having put this foul-minded trash down the In-sinkerator where it belongs.
Some black groups and individuals have objected to "Beulah Land" because of its demeaningly stereotypical black characters. In the film, which begins with the first two-hour chapter tonight at 8 on Channel 4 (continuing Wednesday and Thursday at 9 p.m.), the black characters are certainly more civil and less neurotic than most of the white ones, but they are also seen as docile and passive and basically content with their lots as slaves.
The first words spoken by a black character in the film pretty much set the reactionary tone. Faithful old Ezra, driving a coach, tells a little white girl suffocating in ringlets, "Well, we done got to Beulah Land, Miss Sarah." James McEachin, who plays Ezra, later asked that his name be removed from the credits because he said the finished movie made him want to throw up.
Writer J. P. Miller, in the hollowest protest connected with the film, also demanded that his name be removed from the credits and replaced with the effete pseudonym of "Jacques Meunier." Miller was angered that NBC did some minor alterations on the film on advice from a prominent historian. That he could ever have taken any pride of authorship in such insipid, warmed-over cornmeal mush is even more ludicrous than the film itself.
"Beulah Land" exhibits racial sensibilities roughly similar to those of D. W. Griffith when he made the racist classic "Birth of a Nation," but of course the filmmakers, including feckless co-directors Virgil Vogel and Harry Falk, exhibit not an iota of anything approaching Griffith's mastery of cinema. "Beulah Land" has all the warmth and tenderness of a shark fight.
Obviously the two "Beulah Land" novels by Lonnie Coleman seemed marketable properties to producer David Gerber and NBC because of their resemblance in time and setting to "Gone With the Wind" and parts of "Roots." The multigenerational saga follows the fate of Beulah Land, this big ol' plantation, and its mistress, the vaguely feisty Sarah Kenrick (Lesley Ann Warren), through a long series of births, deaths, weddings, murders, rapes, adulteries and the Civil War.
Beulah Land is depicted as a relatively liberal plantation, "We don't have to use the whip nearly as much as some do, " notes Sarah's mama Deborah Kendrick (Hope Lange) before kicking the bucket. Nevertheless, the Kendricks employ a vicious, slobbering overseer (the totally blank Paul Shenar) who marries a local prostitute (Jenny Agutter) in part one. "It's so boring here," she complains, even though the grounds are alive with pleasurin' and pillowin' and enough smarmy innuendoes to make Larry Flynt blush.
Among the more dopily tantalizing subplots is one involving daugther Selma (Madeline Stowe) and the slave Pauline. On her wedding night, Selma refused to submit to her drunken husband (Don Johnson) and is tossed into the bushes. Soon she takes up in an apparent lesbian relationship with Pauline which lasts for the next few decades. The two of them disappear behind a bedroom door and sally forth only on rare occasions.
It is the film's only example of interracial love and of an enduring relationship. So there you are.
In part two, Sarah, whose spineless husband (Paul Rudd) is running around with every woman in Georgia -- Sarah's own sister included -- has a lifeless affair with a visiting painter (Michael Sarrazin, one small step from coma) who will later return as head of the Union troops during the war. Soon after her dalliance in the fields with the artist, Sarah is raped by a slave who is then shot dead by another (loyal) slave and so on.
In part three, though, what was mere moronic hokum turns truly rotten. Throughout, the slaveowners have for the most part been depicted as sexually messed up but essentially benign. Entger the film's real villains, the Yankees. Union troops move into town and proceed to kill a valued horse, knock a child to the ground, stamp the Confederate flag into the dirt, disfigure a 12-year-old boy, torture a blind man and then shoot him in cold blood, rape a number of slaves -- including one who is pregnant -- dig up a cemetery on the property and murder dear old Lovey (Clarice Taylor), who had been Beulah Land's favorite slave from the beginning.
Eventually the loyal slave Floyd (Dorian Harewood) -- who had been freed but returned to the servitude of Beulah Land years later anyway -- and the 12-year-old boy ambush the sergeant who supervised the massacre. Floyd shoots him and the boy stabs him repeatedly with a knife. This is followed in short order by an angered wife's axe murder of her unfaithful husband (off-camera) after which she goes insane, as who wouldn't by this time?
The film ends with the opening of a school for blacks, an event so momentous that even the lesbians, who've been in the bedroom for about 45 years, show up for it.
So soon after the sophistication and maturity of the CBS film "Playing for Time" and of NBC's own "Shogun" we get this incredibly inept throwback on NBC. The program is unfit for children. It is unfit for adults. It is unfit for television -- even television at the Silverman level.