PBS' 'I'll Fly Away' movie catches a breeze and soars


"I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" is one of PBS' better moments.

The two-hour film, which airs at 8 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67), starts slow and has some trouble finding its voice in the first 15 minutes.

But stay with it. The final half-hour is a song -- a lovely, bittersweet and brave song of remembrance and hope.

PBS would be in line for praise even if this weren't ultimately such a fine, little made-for-TV movie.

For those not familiar with the history of the proj- ect, "I'll Fly Away," was a TV series that ran on NBC for two seasons starting in 1991. It portrayed two families, the Bedfords and the Harpers, living in the deep South in the late 1950s and early '60s, the start of the civil rights movement.

It starred Sam Waterston as Forrest Bedford, a white attorney, and Regina Taylor as Lilly Harper, an African-American housekeeper and care-giver for the Bedfords.

The series won critical acclaim, but not big ratings. NBC canceled it in May despite a huge write-in campaign from viewers.

Which is where Public Television entered the picture. In an unprecedented move, PBS bought rights to the 38 episodes that had aired on NBC and then put up the money to make tonight's two-hour movie.

The film opens in modern-day Atlanta in Lilly's apartment. She is 60 years old and a successful author.

Her 12-year-old grandson has come to spend the weekend with her. One Saturday night, she sits the boy down, takes out a

scrapbook and starts to tell him a story from 1962.

The film wobbles a bit here as it tries to find its footing. The boy talks about Rodney King and Lilly sounds too preachy in her responses about Martin Luther King Jr. The tone is overly didactic and artificial.

But once, the film shifts back to 1962, it's off and running.

The story then centers on life in the Harper household, as Lilly's cousin from Detroit comes to visit. The teen-age boy is kidnapped and killed because he was rude to a white woman in public.

Lilly's father, 72-year-old Louis (Bill Cobb), is the only person who saw the men who killed the teen-ager. The drama centers on whether or not Louis will testify against the men.

It's a solid drama made special by the performances of Taylor, Cobb, Waterston and Jeremy London as Nathan, Forrest Bedford's 19-year-old son.

There are a number of exceptional scenes: Lilly and her daughter watching white children in a public swimming pool; Louis teaching his granddaughter to swim in a muddy fishing hole; Forrest informing Lilly of her cousin's death; Nathan facing the harsh reality of class differences among whites in a final confrontation with his former best friend from childhood.

But the very best moments are saved for the end when the 60-year-old Lilly travels back to Bryland to visit the old home she has not seen in 31 years and to look up Forrest.

Most of the two hours of "I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" belongs to Harper. But Waterston flat out runs away with the final scene on his front porch, as he portrays an old man talking about the scattered leaves of the Bedford family tree and seeming to need Lilly's approval desperately.

In an interview last summer, Waterston said the purpose of the movie is "to try and provide some emotional closure" for the millions of fans who were upset by the abrupt ending of the series on NBC. "I'll Fly Away: Then and Now" accomplishes that goal and then some. It reminds us that not all broadcasters are indifferent to what we feel for some of the shows and characters on TV.

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