'Jewel' is a gem of TV drama

Two documentaries look at Nazi camp escapes, African-American migration

Brett Lott's best-selling book about a Southern mother's progressive understanding of love has become a TV movie - and Jewel (CBS, Feb. 7, 9-11 p.m.) is a bit of a gem.

The story is really a chronicle of one woman's attempt to save her youngest child from the ravages of life in an institution.

The little girl, Brenda Kay (Laura Mercer), is born during World War II and diagnosed with Down syndrome. The doctor's reaction is to send the baby to an asylum, since she will probably die by the time she is 2, he predicts.

But the doctor has not reckoned with the devotion and love of which the title character, Jewel (played with delicate integrity by Farrah Fawcett) is capable. She keeps the baby, determined to teach her rudimentary skills and language. And she does - until one day she realizes the child needs special schooling. Major changes are in store for the family.

The family does prosper, and the child thrives. But the price the family has paid for their mother's dedication to this little girl is very high. The unselfishness the entire family has expressed must still be answered by love, and their very human need for their mother's care, counsel, and affection must be met.

Very little on television ever expresses that need young adults can feel for their mother's love and attention. And while it is far more common for TV to assert a young adult's need for independence, this kindly film goes further.

The story recognizes Brenda Kay's autonomy, the whole individual she is with her own experiences. Even a loving parent can forget that a child needs a life outside the family. A blood bond is not enough.

In order to protect Brenda Kay from future devastation (when she must live in the world without her parent's care), Jewel removes the protective arms so firmly clenched around the teenager. It is not merely a bit of psychological wisdom the film expresses, but a penetration toward something more profound.

Most TV movies tend toward the obvious. The novel "Jewel" brings its heroine more gradually to the realization of love's demands, and also of its human limitations, so that these realizations arrive as if discovered.

Perhaps the two hours it takes to tell this story on film is not long enough. We aren't shown Jewel's childhood - or the reverberations of that childhood throughout Jewel's life.

Nor do we understand enough about the character of Cathedral (played sensitively by Cicely Tyson), Jewel's African-American housekeeper and spiritual adviser. It is a key relationship that could have used more screen time.

Still, though this film strips the book of much of its complexity, it retains the story's clear spirit. It may inspire viewers to read the stirring source material.

Two fine documentaries this week reveal in-depth stories we should all know better. One of them is the story of the "Great Migration" of African-Americans from the Deep South to the big cities of the North and West before and after World War II. The other reveals the details of the escape artist's craft among allied officers in a Nazi prison camp.

Focusing on the community that developed in Chicago, George King's Goin' to Chicago (PBS, Feb. 8, check local listings) interviews older residents who explain what a Southern share-cropper's life was really like and how life changed for them when they left. Archival footage and newsreels combined with the interviews, amateur films, and music form a gripping story whose end is still not in sight.

For some, Chicago was the promised land. Tremendous success stories, despite a variety of stumbling blocks from white flight in the '40s and '50s, mix with stories of contemporary black-on-black violence in once-successful housing developments like Cabrini-Green. For some, Chicago's terrible economic fluctuations have spelled the end of hope.

Without meaning to, the German high command collected the best escape artists among the captured allied officers in one place. Trained and dedicated to escape, the German-dubbed "bad boys" incarcerated at Colditz Castle thought up elaborate and ingenious tricks. And it's all laid out in Nova: Nazi Prison Escape (PBS, Feb. 6, check local listings).

The preparation for escape is the most fascinating part of the story. The elaborate schemes in the popular TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" had nothing on the real story. Interviews with a variety of living British ex-POWs explain how they made dummy rifles, uniforms, official-looking stamps and papers, reproduced maps using gelatin for off-set printing, and even built a glider in an attic.

Cooperation among Polish, French, and assorted other European officers was essential. What comes through is the exhilarating spirit of defiance and cooperation that these brave, brilliant men exhibited.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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