"Go Tell It on the Mountain," a two-hour treatment of James Baldwin's first novel, will give those who watch on Channel 26 at 9 tonight many reasons to rejoice.
Most important, this work by one of America's deans of letters finally appears on television 32 years after its publication, reaching a new audience of interpreters and, it is hoped, many more admirers.
The story leaves the viewer with a sense of intellectual challenge and questions about the characters and their motivations. It catches universal situations and makes you think. And thinking is not the end product of most TV.
Some wonderful actors are at work: Paul Winfield, Rosalind Cash, Olivia Cole, Douglas Turner Ward, Ruby Dee and Alfre Woodard, for starters. As Ward says early in the drama, "Let us all say, 'Praise it.' "
Several scenes are powerful, especially the ones inside the church, where the plainness of the faces is erased by the vitality of their words and expressions. When the spirit is overpowering, neither the camera nor the actors back away from, or lessen the dignity of, these eruptions of emotions or the privacy of the act of finding religion.
"Mountain," published in 1953, is Baldwin's slightly fictionalized look at his youth in Harlem under the crushing supervision of his preacher-father. Baldwin had no part in this adaptation, part of the American Playhouse series. The father had moved up-South to escape a tattered past down-South, but had only transported the demons of racism and personal mistakes and the pressures of staking out respect for his manhood, at least in his own home.
In a series of strong flashbacks, edited by Jay Freund, the psychological heritage of the young Baldwin character (John Grimes, played by James Bond III) is explored.
As the minister, Gabriel Grimes, played by Winfield, falls into bed with his wife, played by Cole, the story fades to an earlier affair in the South in which the father left a woman's bed to run out to the field where he declares his love for God. Overly dramatic in tone, the scene still conveys the fever of the father's religion and gives some explanation to why his Bible of conduct was as handy as his belt of discipline.
"Mountain's" pivotal relationship is the one between the father and son. Their distance is best epitomized by the father's disdain for a writing award his son gets in school, and the disregard the son shows when his father orders him to return it.
Yet some other relationships, adapted by writers Gus Edwards and Leslie Lee, give the story the worthy and full dimensions that have sparked a generation. Cash, as Florence, the preacher's sister, sizzles with her criticism of how he treats his family. When he threatens to hit her, daggers are telegraphed. Later when Florence gets the spirit in church, her brother hardly conceals his displeasure at her intrusion into his power base.
Some scenes are depicted with a surprising timidity, such as a white nightriders' escapade, but perhaps director Stan Lathan didn't want to cover old cinematic ground. Any lapses into melodrama or scenes for shock value can be forgiven because Lathan tapped the best of his actors. And Winfield properly plays the father so rigidly that viewers will ache with exasperation at his hatred and discouragement. And that makes this drama one to remember.