BOSTON — From documentaries to discussions to dramas, TV programs in February are saluting Black History Month - but you have to know where to look.
The commercial networks have other things on their minds - like the fact that February is also sweeps month, when the ratings help determine how much can be charged for commercials. Keep an eye out, though, on network news programs like CBS's wee-hours Up to the Minute, airing Monday through Friday 2-6 a.m., which plans to carry special reports and features relating to the occasion. On Fox, spot announcements and mini-features mark Black History Month, and the 28th NAACP Image Awards airs Feb. 27, 8-10 p.m. Hosted by Arsenio Hall and Patti LaBelle, the event honors positive portrayals of African-Americans in media.
Cable and public TV are where the action is. PBS, for instance, has an array of documentary and performance programs like Conjure Women (Feb. 13, 10-11:30 p.m.), exploring the art and outlook of four notable African-American artists. On Black America: Facing the Millennium (PBS, Feb. 25, 10-11 p.m.), three prominent African-Americans critique black America from the perspectives of history, culture, and the economy.
On cable, the choices are rich and varied. The centerpiece of Showtime's well-stocked black-history schedule is an original film starring the distinguished and award-laden black actor Sidney Poitier, and Michael Caine, in the title roles respectively of Mandela and De Klerk (Feb. 16, 8-10 p.m.). This historical drama deals with the final years of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment and his later inauguration as president of South Africa. Shot entirely in that country, the production combines dramatization and news clips in a heavily researched look behind the scenes at the negotiations leading up to the creation of the new South Africa.
Showtime's lineup also includes other fine African-American actors in theatrical films now getting their cable premires. One of these is a cinematic Othello (Feb. 16, 10:05 p.m-12:08 a.m.) with Laurence Fishburne in the title role of Shakespeare's tragic black hero. And a collection of shorter films by promising American directors is offered in Black Filmmaker's Showcase, airing each evening at 7:30 p.m. between Feb. 10 and 14.
The History Channel's observation of Black History Month is thoughtful and extensive. As part of its Movies in Time format, for instance, the channel presents a discussion (Feb. 21, 9-9:30 p.m.) of "Ghosts of Mississippi," the Rob Reiner film about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the long crusade to bring his killer to justice. Moderated by Sander Vanocur, the round table lets historians comment on the accuracy of the film and also features interviews with Reiner and some of the cast: Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, and James Woods. After the round table, the fact-based film drama For Us, the Living (9:30-11:30 p.m.) tells the Medgar Evers story in its own way.
A bit of earlier history is captured in Harlem Hellfighters (Feb 23, 10-11 p.m.), a powerful and revealing documentary about the redoubtable 369th Infantry in World War I. Blacks have fought in American wars since the Revolution, but this courageous though not widely known outfit paved the way for African-Americans to become officers with real authority.
Narrated by actor Roscoe Lee Browne, the program makes an overlooked chapter of history compelling and meaningful as it tells the story - through a flow of old and new images, interviews, and some interesting audio bits - of the outfit that began in Harlem as the 15th Regiment of the New York National Guard. With less training than virtually any other American unit, it went into combat in World War I. It became the only unit - black or white - to serve as many as 191 days at the front.
HBO's main bow to the occasion is its original movie Miss Evers' Boys (Feb. 22, 9-11 p.m.), a drama about a 1930s government medical experiment on African-American men. And even the home-and- garden channel HGTV is honoring the month, most notably with African Design/American Homes (Feb. 16, 9-10 p.m.). This tour of homes, hosted by Spencer Christian of "Good Morning America," examines how Africa-inspired design is reflected in American interiors.
In all, it's quite a TV menu - as it should be. (In all cases, check local listings for premieres and repeats.)