With 'Laurel Avenue,' TV gets black family life right


HBO's miniseries "Laurel Avenue" hasn't had the hype of, say, CBS' "Sinatra" or ABC's "The Jacksons." There are no marquee names in the credits. The biggest star connected with the project is producer Charles Dutton of "Roc" and Broadway fame, who does not appear on camera.

But "Laurel Avenue," which airs at 10 tonight and tomorrow night on cable, is the miniseries that people will be talking about this summer. It presents a slice of African-American family life featuring the most complex and interesting black characters ever seen in prime time. And Dutton & Co. make it look so easy, you have to wonder why it took the TV industry more than 40 years to do it.

There's nothing flashy about "Laurel Avenue." Its focus is severalgenerations of a black, working-class family in St. Paul, Minn., the Arnetts. The two-part film takes viewers inside the lives of members of the Arnett family for a weekend -- starting Friday afternoon and ending Monday morning.

At the center of the family are Jake and Maggie Arnett (played by Mel Winkler and Mary Alice), a fiftyish couple with a big, spacious house that serves as the emotional center for several generations of Arnetts.

Jake and Maggie share the house with two of their children -- Keith (Scott Lawrence), a high school basketball coach, and Sheila (Malinda Williams), a 16-year-old high school student -- as well as with their cranky old Uncle Otis (Jay Brooks).

Much of tonight's story involves two of Maggie's daughters from previous marriage -- Yolanda (Juanita Jennings) and Rolanda (Rhonda Stubbins White).

Yolanda, who has a white husband, is a St. Paul police officer about to be promoted to sergeant. Rolanda is a recovering drug addict whose recovery suddenly isn't going so well after a visit from her physically abusive ex-husband. Her 15-year-old son, Rushan (Vonte Sweet), is slipping into the world of drugs himself as a low-level, street-corner peddler; and she has a sweet, 5-year-old daughter, Shanequa (Ondrea Shalbetter), whose innocence makes the physical abuse and drugs seem all the more awful.

There are no easy answers in "Laurel Avenue."

As Jake is driving Rolanda to a job interview, for example, he gives her a pep talk about persistance, hanging in there and never giving up. And just when you start believing in the wisdom and the power of Jake's middle-class platitudes intended to inspire Rolanda to get her life back on track, the camera shows her coming apart at the seams emotionally and spiritually.

The miniseries is very much about Jake's middle-class values. And although Dutton uses the term working-class to describe the Arnetts, some of them have made it into the middle class.

Central to the film's drama is the struggle to move from the working class into a middle class. One of the things that makes "Laurel Avenue" so refreshing is that, unlike most of prime-time TV, it refuses to act as if there are no class distinctions or barriers to upward mobility for anyone willing to work. There are plenty, and the miniseries acknowledges them.

"Laurel Avenue" is a rich, complicated and uneven work. One minute, it's at the level of TV soap opera with Yolanda and Rolanda bickering about who Mom liked best. The next minute, a scene intense enough to power a stage play unfolds as a high school basketball star who stutters attempts to articulate his rage at being benched and missing his shot at a college scholarship. The scene is made all the more powerful because the viewer sees the teen-ager through the eyes of his 16-year-old girlfriend who can't believe the pain she's suddenly confronting.

"Laurel Avenue" is such an enlightened breakthrough in African-American TV images -- which sadly are still dominated by the legacy of 19th-century minstrel shows -- that HBO should make "Laurel Avenue" a regular weekly series next year.

But for now, Dutton gives us something to think about.

"In the media, life seems to be either 'The Cosby Show' or 'Boyz N the Hood,' one extreme or the other," he said. "But black life is somewhere in between."

"Laurel Avenue" is the road to that untraveled territory.

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