A disturbingly anachronistic drama about the changing face of race relations in the 20th century may prove to be the most controversial PBS program of the year.
The File on Jill Hatch (Tuesdays, Feb. 15 and 22 and March 1, 9-10 p.m., check local listingsm) is far from perfect - its narrative form is contrived and often awkward, its conclusions are too pat. But, despite my reservations about this BBC-WNET/NY co-production, the fact is that it contains unforgettably wrenching moments of pathos - the shocking remembrance of inequities only recently corrected.
Directed with sensitivity by Alastair Reid, the script by Kenneth Cavander handles the delicate matters of miscegenation and generation gap with an understanding touch in the first two segments, then bogs down in political mumbo jumbo and pop psychology in the final episode. But, before it finally stumbles a bit, it marches proudly.
''The File'' concerns a black intellectual WWII American GI in Bristol, England, who meets and marries a lower-class radical white English girl. With subtlety, the script investigates the repressed bigotry of the British in the ' 40s, then the racial situation in the United States after the war. In Montgomery , Ala., where antimiscegenation laws would have jailed him, the black husband is forced to don a chauffeur's uniform to accompany his wife to his mother's home.
The story line follows the couple through graduate school, the women's movement, and the activist '60s, to a safe and respectable haven on the faculty of a New England college. Their daughter begins participating in activist movements of the '80s, then returns to England to take part in the Brixton race riots. It is here that the mini-series bogs down in coincidence, oversimplification of motivation, pat solutions. But, along the way, it has provided viewers with no-holds-barred honesty about race relations.
The American attitude toward blacks less than 40 years ago needs to be recalled for those too young to remember - and those who have forgotten too soon.
Viewers accustomed to routine black-white do-good stereotypes in such dramas will find that ''The File'' breaks through many barriers. The black husband, played with dignity and strength by Joe Morton, is not the usual white-featured, Caucasian-in-blackface type. He is genuinely black. His mother, played with unbending conviction by Gloria Foster, rejects her white daughter-in-law because she feels the girl is beneath her son intellectually as well as socially.
This unusual mini-series in the ''American Playhouse'' series handles reverse discrimination and until-now unexplored areas of race relations with a fine yet probing delicacy. It will cause many viewers to re-examine their own attitudes from a unique, new perspective. If it is, perhaps, not perfect drama, it is at least provocative, stimulating, innovative programming that will have millions of viewers feeling, . . . empathizing, . . . thinking.