'House Divided' breaks down realities of race

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This television season has been dominated by a discussion of two issues - reality and race. Showtime's "A House Divided" has both. The film (Sunday, July 30, 8-10 p.m.) is based on the true story of Amanda America Dickson, offspring of a slave and a white plantation owner who is raised as a white child and inherits the largest farm in a small Georgia community upon the death of her father. It is based on the book, "Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson," by Kent Anderson Leslie.

Coming as it does on the heels of a season which saw much discussion about the long-term but scantily documented relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings, the Showtime feature, based on trial transcripts and historical records, offers a far more realistic assessment of a liaison between a slave and her owner.

"What was this combination that made it possible for this white man to think it was OK to rape a slave, raise the child as his own, keep the mother in the house as a slave, keep the secret from the child and then, discovering that the mother had wonderful abilities and talents, use them to the extent that she was basically running the plantation for him?" asks star Sam Waterston, who plays the wealthy plantation owner, David Dickson.

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Also one of the film's producers, Mr. Waterston says they felt it was critical to emphasize that although Amanda's mother stayed on the farm for some four decades, long past the end of slavery, the relationship began as a rape. He says that the plantation was at the height of its success when Julia Dickson worked it alongside the owner. Despite her help, there is no indication Dickson was able to come to terms with his abuse of power.

"It's one of those situations where this guy gets as far as his brain can carry him, given his prejudices, and then he just stops in bewilderment because the woman that he's talking to has a kind of moral certainty about her that he can't get around, but he can't digest. You know, the wrongness of himself is too much for him to compute."

Lisa Gay Hamilton, who portrays Julia Dickson, questions whether anyone can accept any other depiction of a relationship based on slavery. "I don't think that per the Sally Hemmings story and Thomas Jefferson, that anyone could even remotely believe that that's love," says Ms. Hamilton. "It was important to express the truth here, which is, 'you may be in love with me, [but] I certainly am not in love with you.' And I think it's unfortunate to tell stories that aren't truthful because what happens is it gets perpetuated over and over again, and we don't stop and really look at it."

The story is framed by the trial that ensues after the reading of Dickson's will. His younger brother contests the designation of Amanda as the largest heir and sets the stage for a battle between the pre- and post-Civil War Southern cultures, one holding onto white male privilege, the other attempting to open a door to a new, more diverse society.

"We were attracted to the subject and to the tantalizing prospect of trying to figure out how this worked out between all these people and how they made their way in life," says Waterston. Jennifer Beals, he adds, was a perfect choice to play Amanda.

"I completely identify with the state of otherness," says Ms. Beals, referring in part to her own racial identity. She relates a story of a stranger on a New York City street trying to identify her, not as a celebrity but as a person.

"I'm American," she told him, to which he replied, " ' No, that's not what I mean. What are you?' And I said, 'My father was African-American, my mother Irish.' " This racial history, she says, satisfied him.

"We haven't come that far in terms of how we view each other and how obsessed with race we are and how we let it get in the way of the people that we choose to love," says Beals. "I hope that the film will make it very clear that love cannot be coded by color."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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