"Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of Black Female Superstars" accomplishes an almost impossible task: chronicling "dark divas" from "Ma" Rainey to Donna Summer in a glamorous but unsentimental way that will intrigue the uninitiated as well as satisfy longtime fans.
"Sugar," which starts its four-part pictorial essay at 10 tonight on WHMM-Channel 32 and repeats on WETA-Channel 26 starting Feb. 10, is based on the 1980 book by Donald Bogle, which coupled publicity stills and playbills with a respectful, but sometimes pointed, analysis of the place of the black woman superstar in the entertainment world through the years.
The television adaptation, narrated by actor Billy Dee Williams, follows the same form -- pictures, pictures and more pictures -- but what makes it wonderful is that they serenade and move.
The portrait of Marian Anderson in front of the Lincoln Memorial, singing solemnly after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to permit her in Constitution Hall, is a well-known and indelible portrait. But hearing her contralto pierce the air with "My Country 'Tis of Thee" before her audience's respectful silence adds a dimension to history that is all too rare.
A movie still of Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte comes to life with Dandridge pointing to her drying toenails and cooing, "Blow on them, sugar, make them dry faster."
These women, says narrator Williams, were "lush fantasy figures for millions everywhere." Given the immediacy of stars today through constant magazine and television exposure, Williams' suggestion of idolatry might seem exaggerated. But reminding -- and teaching the viewer of legends such as Bessie Smith, while showing the reasons for that popularity -- is one of the program's major strengths.
Binding this scrapbook together are interviews with producer John Hammond, restaurateur Barney Josephson, former Cotton Club dancer Maude Russell, the legendary nightclub hostess "Bricktop," singer Joyce Bryant and some of the greats themselves: singers Alberta Hunter, Lena Horne, Adelaide Hall and Maxine Sullivan. Hunter is particulary wonderful talking about Bessie Smith's fashion sense, saying, "She was dressed very gaudily, and she paid a lot of money for her clothes, too."
The first segment pays loving attention to the careers of Smith and Josephine Baker, with live footage of the latter underscoring the dimensions of her sensational popular appeal. "Nothing ever came easy for any of these stars," says Williams, a truth borne out in almost every sketch. Most died young from exhaustion, drugs or accidents; they all had to fight to break stereotypes, and their salaries never matched their fame. After Bessie Smith's initial contract with Columbia Records expired in 1933, Hammond recalls, he found Smith working in a gin joint and persuaded her to record again. "We released the songs on a cheap label. And she said, 'Ain't I gonna get a royalty?' 'You can't on a 35-cents record,' " he recalled, adding, "but it was a wonderful session."
The worst problem these early superstars endured was the racism. Maude Russell, who danced at the other end of the chorus line from Baker, recalls, "The girls weren't nice to her at all . . . They would put her makeup in the hall so they wouldn't have to dress with her."
Two minor elements distract from "Brown Sugar's" considerable appeal. During the opening, in a sincere attempt to establish the theme of success and heartache that bound the stars together, the program races through a confusing series of clips, interviews and voices featuring a range of entertainers from Lena Horne to Gladys Knight. By the end of this dizzying presentation, the reader is pleading for an in-depth look at someone. Anyone.
At a couple of points in the biographies, an entertaining clip is hamstrung for an interview. When Bessie Smith starts to wail about her man in the famous scene from the movie "St. Louis Blues," the program switches to Hammond describing her physical traits and her magic with an audience. She shows it better than he tells it. Later, in the program's second installment, the rage that inspired Billie Holiday to record "Strange Fruit" is explained, but Josephson interrupts the music to say the song "made her a great artist who had something to say." Billie said it better: Let the song play.