A renowned Harvard University professor who is attempting to document African-American life 35 years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visits one of the most wretched public housing projects in the nation, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes.
The professor, Henry Henry Louis Gates Jr., and his small film crew stand in a dirty, graffiti-scarred lobby waiting for an elevator to take them to the 11th floor, where the professor will interview a 30-year resident of the building. He wants to ask her how she thinks things have gone for African-Americans in the years since the death of Dr. King.
There are two elevators, but only one is working in the tower where some 1,000 residents live. When it finally arrives, it is so rickety, hot and crowded, that Gates is afraid to ride in it. He turns instead to a stairwell down the hall.
"I'm claustrophobic in elevators, anyway," he says in voiceover as the camera follows his long, slow journey up the stairs. "After 15 minutes, thinking about the heat inside that electric casket, I head for the stairs. I'd rather walk than get trapped in that thing. But this is routine for people here."
A fear of ramshackle elevators may seem trivial, but this scene exemplifies the small, human touches that make America Beyond the Color Line gleam with honesty amid a season of trumped-up reality shows. The provocative and illuminating two-part documentary airs tomorrow and Wednesday nights on PBS.
The film of Gates climbing steps as he admits his phobia, radiates such authenticity that joining him seems like the most natural thing in the world to do. As he climbs, the narration and images are skillfully combined to evoke how it feels on the hot and sticky stairway, how it feels to live in the run-down building.
America Beyond the Color Line offers viewers a rare chance to journey through various parts of black culture and life with an engaging and genuinely wise guide. And as he plumbs "the color line," Gates, the W.E.B DuBois professor of humanities at Harvard, doesn't limit his investigations to the Chicago housing projects. (The show's title comes from DuBois who said the great problem of 20th century American life is "the problem of the color line.")
The first segment begins as Gates travels to Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta - the holy cities of the Civil Rights movement - tracing the migration of African-Americans back to the South. Along the way, he interviews residents of military bases, politicians, policemen and celebrities including movie star Morgan Freeman and poet Maya Angelou. He also speaks with residents of all-black, gated, suburban communities where the homes start at $750,000.
He doesn't mince words when describing these exclusive enclaves as "segregation." He ends the hour sitting beside the tomb of King, whom he identifies as his "hero," wondering about blacks who choose to live only with "people in their own class who look like them."
"When I think about all that Dr. King lived for and died for - and in a word that vision was integration - I can't help but wonder what Dr. King would think of this whole thing," Gates says.
He leaves the Deep South to visit Chicago, then New York and Washington where he sits down with such African-Americans of corporate and political achievement as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, power- broker Vernon Jordan, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Franklin Raines, the CEO of the Fannie Mae Corp. On the heels of interviewing Simmons, Gates listens as Powell condemns, in no uncertain terms, many of the images and messages pumped into the popular culture by black entrepreneurs such as Simmons.
Gates' quest to chart the main currents of African-American life concludes in California where so many great American journeys end. In an effort to understand the role of "cultural gatekeepers" in the making and selling of black images, he talks to stars such as Samuel L. Jackson, Nia Long, Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker and Alicia Keys. The producers with whom he visits include composer Quincy Jones and Regency Films founder Arnon Milchan.
Gates asks Cheadle point blank if he thinks efforts by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have been helpful in opening doors for persons of color in Hollywood, and the actor says no.
"This isn't bricklaying, it's acting," Cheadle says. ""It's not as simple as just saying we need more numbers."
The film also explores the rarely discussed issue of differences in opportunity based on shades of skin color among African-Americans. As Gates puts it, "If you're light, you're all right. If you're brown, hang around. But if you're black, you better get back." The black actors to whom he speaks, say African-Americans themselves help enforce the standard.
While it is a documentary, America Beyond the Color Line is not the standard, Ken-Burns-inspired, kind of documentary that has come to dominate American public television in the last 15 years. Made for the BBC and PBS by a British production company, it is more closely modeled after such BBC productions as the Life series in which David Attenborough explored the world of nature. In its long-ago glory years, CBS News adapted the model to put correspondents like Bill Moyers and Charles Kuralt on the road exploring America.
How one feels about such documentaries often depends on how one feels about the correspondents who typically write their own copy, appear in nearly every frame and share their thoughts with viewers when they are not interviewing the people they encounter on their trip. There is a lot to like when Gates is the correspondent.
Gates' expertise is a given, but what's surprising is how quickly and gracefully he can lay out a framework for the complicated issues and trends he's trying to chronicle. For example, as he approaches the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, he lays the groundwork for his interviews by pondering why tens of thousands of African-Americans still live at or below the poverty line though the black middle class in the last three decades has expanded significantly.
"Scholars on the left say that the system is to blame. It's a legacy grandfathered by slavery, fathered by Jim Crow racism and nurtured by de facto segregation and job discrimination," Gates says.
"Scholars on the right say its their own fault," he continues. "Too dependant on government handouts, they're lazy, irresponsible, and have no self-reliance. They have decided to be poor.
"Neither argument satisfies me," he concludes as he opens the building's door. "Both deny the human face and voice of poverty that lie behind the statistics we hear so often. I'm going to find some answers from the people who live here themselves."
In the end, Gates is more interested in offering an array of answers from the people he interviews than he is in coming to conclusions and trying to package them as a singular truth.
When he finally makes it to the 11th floor, he meets Caroline Massenberg, who has lived there since the 1970s. She raised three children and is helping to raise five grandchildren. One has just made it into college in Tennessee. She hates life in the building because of "the guns, and the gangs and the drugs and the violence." She blames it on what she calls "bad parents."
As Gates and the woman stand on the balcony looking down through ugly, heavy-gauge wire at the playground below, he says in voiceover, "No statistics can convey Mrs. Massenberg's pain - the poignancy of her dilemma and her powerlessness in the face of the forces arrayed against her despite all her good intentions and hard work."
He asks her if she considers it a "blessing" that the building is about to be torn down.
"Yes," she says hesitatingly. "But you move. You get an apartment - something in a nice neighborhood. These same people are going to move right next door. They're going to take their bad attitudes and the same bad things they're doing here and they're going to be your next door neighbor."
There are no easy answers, and America Beyond the Color Line with Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one of those rare television programs willing to speak that truth.
What: America Beyond the Color Line with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
When: Tomorrow and Wednesday at 9 p.m.
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
In brief: Provocative and illuminating journey tracing the line of color in America today.