Denmark Vesey, a slave who bought his freedom and became a master carpenter, led a misguided slave revolt in Charleston, S.C., in 1822, a little-known episode that has been dramatized for Black History Month on PBS and airs at 8 tonight on channels 26 and 22. While the story, "A House Divided" -- about a small group of comparatively well-treated, prosperous slaves who saw that freedom would not be theirs unless they took it -- is compelling, executive producer Shep Morgan and writer William Hauptman have failed to give its TV adaptation either life or depth.
Vesey is introduced among a shipment of slaves sent from the West Indies. During the journey he learns to read and becomes the property of the ship's captain, who gives him his name, intended to be Telemachus, which the boy mispronounces as Denmark. Years later he buys his freedom after winning a lottery, sets up a carpentry business and prospers. But his wife and son are still slaves, and Vesey is rebuffed in his attempts to buy their freedom.
Charleston was a sophisticated, busy, international port at the time, governed by a benevolent Thomas Bennett and a small militia. Ned Beatty, who plays one of the town burghers, warns Bennett that the slaves are getting too many privileges; he suggests that they be prohibited from owning property and wearing colorful clothes (because it gives them "ideas"), and that Bennett close the African church where they gather. Bennett refuses.
The rebellion is hatched in secret meetings; a cache of pistols and knives are secreted. But the troops are not united, and one of their own betrays them. Instead of freedom, the leaders are given death, and harsh restrictions are imposed on their fellows.
Why is this film uninvolving? Why is there so little drama in such a dramatic situation? Yaphet Kotto's performance as Vesey has something to do with it; he is so extremely understated, exuding physical power and anger but little else, that one finds it hard to listen to what he says. He is also the only one in the cast without an accent.
But even able performers like Cleavon Little and the handsome Bernie Casey can't get beyond the clumsy script, which shifts confusingly from present to past and fails to advance the action in a compelling way. Toward the end, for example, the rebels are seen at an emotional farewell before they go off to meet their respective fates on the field of fire; the next scene shows them marched off in chains, without any explanation of what happened or how they got there. All in all, an unsatisfying effort.