Essays: Sense of justice |
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Sense of justice

IMPORTED from America, the three-part mini-series King (BBC1) dominated the week. As drama it was impossible to switch off. On top of that, it might also have done some good.

‘Holocaust’ had already shown that this kind of illustrated history is not necessarily to be despised just because it is elementary and didactic. It can be both those things and still be true to the spirit of its theme. ‘King’ proved the point all over again. Martin Luther King, transfixingly impersonated by Paul Winfield, emerged as the sort of hero he undoubtedly was — i.e., all the braver for being mortally afraid of the irrational forces his outraged sense of justice had driven him to oppose. His fear was the essential human component which made the whole story convincing, even when complicated events were being compressed into single lines of dialogue or else left out altogether.

In the first episode there was talk about what kind of action should be taken. ‘Maybe we should let violence take its course. Maybe it has to be.’ It was not the sharpest writing in the world, but the issues were well brought out. Non-violence was established not just as the only ethical means, but the best strategy. That this was no easy conclusion for the black leaders to reach was rubbed home by the terrifyingly real depiction of the strategy employed by the other side. Black non-violent resistance was something new. White violent repression had a whole tradition behind it.

Marching together in the streets, the blacks at least had their solidarity with which to keep up morale. But once under arrest, anyone could be isolated, including King. There was a thought-provoking scene when he and his friends were all in the same cell, singing and joking. Then everyone was released except King. The camera went close on his face, which was telling the whole truth about how much harder it is to be courageous when nobody except the enemy is watching.

It was made clear, however, that the enemy was not the white man. The enemy was racism. The script left talk of Whitey and the Man to the exponents of Black Power. This again was an elementary point to make but it suited the story, first because King was out to prove elementary points and second because it was true. Black Power attracted much admiration from the radically chic, but in fact the real work had already been done by King and his followers, who were brave enough to appeal to their oppressors’ better instincts even when those instincts were hypothetical. There is no mystery, of course, about why Eldridge Cleaver made better copy than King ever did. Romantic whites who had no intention of emulating either man found Cleaver’s brand of courage more exciting to identify with.

In the second episode King and his peaceful army desegregated Birmingham, Alabama, which was a feat comparable to building a synagogue in pre-war Munich. Playing Mrs King, Cicely Tyson waited bravely at home while her husband ran the gauntlet. The staunch wife is an unrewarding role, but she did a lot with it. In the third episode the FBI tried to tell her about King’s infidelities. She was believable in choosing to ignore what they had to say. The FBI’s role was plausibly shown to have been despicable throughout. Blame was laid squarely on the desk of J. Edgar Hoover. One’s only objection here was that Hoover was given too much credit for having been a guardian of liberty in the past. All the evidence suggests that he was a public menace from the day he took office.

After coming out against the war in Vietnam, King lost favour in the White House. He was doomed from that moment. But he was probably doomed anyway. The most effective exchange of dialogue in the series was the climactic debate between King and Malcolm X. The devil’s advocate was given the best line. ‘At least we have one thing in common. We’re both dead men.’ The scenes leading up to the assassination were hard to bear for tension, and those after it were consumingly sad.

But the agony was not piled on. Abby Mann, the writer and director, has acquired a sense of economy since he wrote the film ‘Judgment at Nuremberg,’ a star-studded harangue which helped convince me that these awful subjects are better not treated at all than treated crudely. But there is a difference between crudity and simplicity. ‘King’ taught its lesson well. Only a fool would believe that it does not need teaching. A moral genius can be good uninstructed, but most of us have to be shown how to behave.

It was an appropriate week to screen Carmen Jones (BBC2), a film which, apart from its considerable aesthetic merits, valuably suggests what life was like for American blacks before King discovered the only effective way of fighting back. An all-black film was really just as Jim Crow as an all-white film, Since it was an equally clear indication that white and black could not be allowed to mix on equal terms. The late Dorothy Dandridge embodied the tragic waste and misuse of black talent. She is so magnificently alive in the title role that you wonder what happened to her. The answer is that nothing happened to her. But Hollywood in the fifties was so busy turning Doris Day into the girl next door and Marilyn Monroe into a sex queen that it probably couldn’t have coped with a real woman like Dorothy Dandridge even if she had been white.

The first big production of the Beeb’s Opera Month was Carmen (BBC2), emanating from Vienna. Franco Zeffirelli was the director, so it was no surprise that the decor and costumes looked good. Placido Domingo made an imposing Don José: in the Act II duet he sang with such lyricism that the show was stopped for minutes on end while the Viennese clapped on and on like a plenary session of the Central Committee applauding Brezhnev.

Unfortunately Carmen herself did not quite suit the picture. Elena Obraztsova sings with force and cutting edge, but she is no Dorothy Dandridge when it comes to incarnating a dream of lithe passion. Miss Obraztsova is built for track-and-field athletics. From the visual aspect, Fanny Craddock would have been better casting. Still, there can be no doubt that shooting a competent stage production remains the sensible way of presenting opera on the box. For the senseless way, watch out for the forthcoming repeat of ‘Macbeth.’

In The National Skating Association Centenary Gala (BBC1) Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner performed their bewitchingly lovely competition pairs programme. Nothing so powerfully elegant has been seen on ice since the Protopopovs hung up their blades. Malice Aforethought (BBC2) came to an end. Tooling down country lanes in his upright Austin, the philandering physician with his phials of phatal philtres ... phorget it.

The Observer, 8th April 1979