Drama about courage of a downtrodden people

A Gathering of Old Men CBS, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Dramatic special set in rural Louisiana. Starring Louis Gossett Jr. and Richard Widmark. Script by Charles Fuller from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. Shotguns leveled at a gang of white would-be lynchers, the black men stand fast. ``Ain't going to be no lynching tonight,'' one says. They're aged and ragged, but they've turned a corner in their long lives of oppression.

``A Gathering of Old Men'' - a heartening and memorable drama about a turning point in attitudes in rural Louisiana's Cajun country - is based on a story by Ernest J. Gaines, author of the tale of another great turning point, ``The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.''

Mr. Gaines's tale - effectively dramatized by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Charles Fuller - deals with courage, pride, and the ability of downtrodden people to make a change.

The plot leaps at you at first, then unfolds its elemental themes like an ancient African myth in modern dress: A white racist tries to kill a frightened black man, who shoots him in self-defense.

Once this basic fact is posited, the show is unerringly authoritative in its evocation of place, people, and attitudes - especially changed attitudes. Yes, a white has been killed, but this won't be simply another case of automatic black guilt. Like other observers, Candy, daughter of the plantation owner, thinks her beloved Mathu - an indomitable old black man who helped raise her - has done the shooting. Telling people she's the one who killed the white man, she dispatches black kids to summon help and then sets out herself to rally help. In a series of Paul Revere-ish scenes, old blacks drop everything, grab guns, and rush to Mathu's defense.

The production lets you feel something strange in the air: collective memories of injustice have welled up in the men and turned them into a mini-militia - tattered, doddering, but new men just the same. They shoulder their shotguns and march like soldiers along land they and their ancestors have worked since slavery days. The strong sense of Southern black rurality - dusty dirt roads, poor houses - surrounds the action and makes the black militancy all the more real.

What's happening? ask a few whites. The racist's body lies there hours later; the sheriff sits nearby; and the old blacks - many having ``confessed'' to the one-man crime, frustrating the sheriff - now wait for some kind of collective white retaliation.

The feelings galvanizing the blacks may have a long social history, but this drama deals with it in pointedly personal terms, building a spirit of both camaraderie and bitter reminiscence among the blacks. And the show is full of other pungent images of strong and sometimes funny regional characters - like slightly eccentric old white ladies and kids who don't forget to ask for food as they spread the alarm about the killing.

Through it all looms the hawklike, mainly silent figure of Mathu, a lanky black man of few words (well-spoken by Louis Gossett Jr.) who personifies both the militancy and the wisdom of his fellows. He is the antipode of the white sheriff (solidly performed by Richard Widmark), a bully in a white hat who nonetheless has more sense than some of the red-neck radicals.

Many of the show's white characters, in fact, have more than one side to them. The longer you watch, the more complexity you recognize in the relationship of these white and black people, who have dealt with each other for years. Candy's character, for instance, is skillfully shaded by Holly Hunter, whose cries are wrenching when she fears the black men may not stand and fight after all. And the drama eventually lets you understand how the dead man's family feels - they're not all really villains after all.

The resolution is a lesson in hard-won understanding by the blacks. Things will never be the same. As one background voice says, while blacks are seen sitting in the back of a truck on the way to join the defense, ``We all felt kind of good, 'cause we were doing something different for the first time....''

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