PBS takes look at race in America


It's too bad about Matters of Race, a two-night PBS documentary exploring the changing racial identity of the United States.

The filmmakers have located representative communities and chronicled eloquent personal testimony to the ways in which race touches almost every corner of every American's life these days whether one knows it or not. But, in trying to articulate a more enlightened notion of race, they seem to have forgotten they are making mainstream television for viewers with myriad choices, not an educational film to be shown to captive audiences in classrooms.

Their specific sin as producers of television documentary is a deadly one: At key points in their narratives about how communities are dealing with new immigrants and changing demographics, they stop the reporting and interviewing cold to let authors read from their works about race. Television programs, even the most high-minded documentaries, do not speak in the more formalized voice of the written word. This is Television 102, if not 101, and each time the story stops to let an author read, I suspect viewers are going to be tuning out public television tonight.

The problem is all too apparent in Part 1, titled "The Divide" - a look at Siler City, N.C., a town that has come to be known in some quarters as "Little Mexico" because of all the Mexicans who have come there to work in the poultry processing plants. The community that had long been separated between a white majority and an African-American minority is now estimated to be one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. And residents in all three groups are struggling to adjust to the new demographic reality.

The filmmakers find excellent informants among the Hispanic and white communities, but they don't seem to have done nearly as well in gaining the trust of black residents. That's not a deadly sin, because the greatest tension right now does seem to be between the Anglo and Hispanic groups - although the film does build toward a climactic moment involving the black community that seems to come out of nowhere because a proper groundwork among African-Americans was not laid.

The film opens with a Mexican immigrant, Lilia Moro, telling her story of illegal entry into the United States. It's a great opening - her words matched perfectly to images of the desert she navigated on her journey north. And all of it layered over a melancholy musical underpinning.

There is a nice set-up to the piece, too, with Ruben Martinez, a writer and musician, saying: "These are the modern migrant tales - immigrants that are being led by the labor economy in the United States into the tiniest apartments in town in places like Siler City in North Carolina. ... This will come to be known as another great era of immigration. This infusion of new immigrants is completely blowing wide open our notions of race and identity and class in the United States."

And that's the way authors should be used in such documentaries - talking to the camera as if being interviewed. The concepts and ideas they articulate are the same smart ones that are found in their books, but they are delivering them in the more informal, conversational language of television. Why do you think Ken Burns uses his experts this way rather than having them read from their books?

"The Divide" sails along for five minutes and 45 seconds after Martinez speaks, and it looks like it is going to be a splendid work of nonfiction - and then up pops author Eric Liu reading from one of his books about race. As wise as Liu is on the matter, the film is stopped dead by his sounding like a professor who didn't take the time to prepare a lecture.

The big idea that the filmmakers fail to translate for a TV audience is that race is not primarily a matter of biology. It's an idea or series of ideas in our heads, which we then make into a societal reality with laws, zoning ordinances, codes of conduct, bricks and mortar. That concept is the basis of the 1966 landmark book The Social Construction of Reality by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman.

It's not mainstream reading, but Matters of Race is not mainstream viewing either. It really is too bad because there is so much in this documentary that could have made us more enlightened about race.

Matters of Race airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

'I'm With Her'

I'm with Her has generated as much pre-air buzz as any new sitcom, thanks mainly to ABC stressing how writer Chris Henchy's "real-life marriage to Brooke Shields is the inspiration for this fresh romantic comedy" about a movie star falling for an "average guy who teaches high school."

Unfortunately, this is another case where the publicity campaign is much better than the actual show.

First of all, it's not so fresh. I'm with Her is Notting Hill - the feature film starring Julia Roberts as a movie star who falls for an average guy played by Hugh Grant - shrunk down for the TV screen. But too much is lost in the shrinking. For this concept to work, the leading lady has to seem larger than life every time she comes on screen; Roberts has that kind of persona.

As for Teri Polo, who plays the famous actress here? Please. She has barely enough ooomph to star in a mediocre sitcom. And, try as they might, there is no way the producers can fix that.

I'm with Her airs at 8:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

'One Tree Hill'

One Tree Hill is more teen angst from WB. Impressive photography and a good-looking cast add up to a drama that is at least pretty to look at. But it doesn't have quite the sizzle of Fox's new teen drama The O.C., the new series young viewers seem to be in love with this fall.

The drama centers on two high school seniors, half-brothers Nathan (Jason Lafferty) and Lucas (Chad Michael Murray), who share a father and a love of basketball. Nathan is the son beloved and spoiled by his father, the wealthy owner of an auto dealership. Lucas lives with his single mom and hates his father for abandoning him and her.

It might sound a little biblical on paper, but the climax of tonight's pilot finds Lucas, a loner who lives for pickup basketball games on the playground, taking on Nathan, the all-state star of Tree Hill High School, in a one-on-one midnight game of hoops. The prize involves Nathan's pouty cheerleader girlfriend (Hilary Burton) and a spot for Lucas on Tree Hill's team.

Maybe, if you're 14, this is epic enough.

One Tree Hill airs at 9 tonight on WNUV (Channel 54).

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