Networks shine in February

African-themed shows enhance month already crammed with special 'sweeps' fare

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February television tends to do pretty well by the viewer. It's a "sweeps" month, when high ratings lead to advertising dollars, so our favorite shows may be graced by visiting guest stars. Fox trots out Cloris Leachman and Robert Loggia to guest on "Malcolm in the Middle" this Sunday; Ellen Barkin is on "King of the Hill"; and "The Simpsons" has cornered tennis champions Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and the Williams sisters as guest voices. Barbra Streisand gives a two-hour farewell concert. Even missing special agent Fox Mulder came back for a few seconds of screen time on "The X-Files" last week.

Sarah Michelle Geller of The WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" guest stars on that network's "Grosse Pointe." CBS offers a splendid miniseries, "Haven," next week (see story, page 19). ABC offers a collection of elder divas in "These Old Broads." There'll be a tax-free "Millionaire" next week, and the gorgeous, hilarious Charlotte Ross guests as Frasier's Valentine on NBC. Cool stuff is happening all month.

But February is also Black History Month, of course, and a variety of significant programming is meant to help us all grow in our understanding.

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Of major interest this week is a monumental and artfully composed documentary on Africa, Hopes on the Horizon (PBS, Friday, Feb. 16, 9-11 p.m.).

The producers of the earlier "Eyes on the Prize" this time chronicle the rise of pro-democracy movements across Africa. Civil liberties organizations sprang up, and great thinkers helped raise consciousness among journalists, students, and lawyers.

First, Benin made the transition to democracy, then others followed with greater and lesser success during the 1990s - Nigeria, Rwanda, Morocco (where women fought for civil rights), Mozambique, and South Africa have been affected. Even in the midst of genocide and retaliation (as in Rwanda), justice and peace advocates are at work.

Writer-director Onyekachi Wambu says of his film, "[It] is about ordinary people taking back their governments, and for us that's where the hope is." Check www.pbs.org for educator's guides and further information.

Black Filmmaker Showcase (Showtime, Feb. 14, 8 p.m.) presents five short films by emerging talents that deal with a variety of issues. Room 302, directed by Erma Elzy-Jones, concerns two women colleagues and friends on a business trip together. The white woman confronts the black one about their differences - ever since they disagreed about the verdict on the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Their apparently irreconcilable views take a sudden twist when they both overhear the murder of a prostitute in the next room and are helpless to intervene. The friends come to a new understanding both of the preciousness of human life and of the aberrant media sensationalism that thrives on racism and pits race against race.

The most beautifully realized of the five films is called The Gilded Six Bits, based on a short story by Zora Neale Hurston and directed by Booker T. Mattison. The acting is terrific, the story poignant, and the production values excellent. In this story, a young couple living on the outskirts of a town in the 1930s are saving up to have a family when a slick, smooth-talking, successful businessman opens an ice-cream parlor and lays his traps for the wife, Missie May.

This small film has so much subtext it could fill up two hours of screen time. But instead, the deepest ideas go unspoken - yet fully illuminated. The film is about forgiveness and greatness of heart. But it is also about the price we pay for creating suffering around us.

Keep a look out for director Mattison in the future - his is a poetic and artful voice. He will no doubt continue to make meaningful, beautiful films.

Also of interest is Special Day, directed by Anna Dudley, and The Blessing Way, directed by Yvette Freeman. "Special Day" takes us into the heart of the civil rights movement of the late 1950s, when a young husband takes off from work to participate in a sit-in. His wife does not understand why he would leave his job to pursue a political goal, endangering himself and therefore his family. This film explores the struggle from an intimate domestic perspective and touches a new chord.

"The Blessing Way" explores the relationship between two loving sisters who have followed different paths in life - one a high-powered executive in the dominant culture and the other an Afrocentric, unconventional lifestyle. Though the ending is a bit abrupt, this is also a touching tale, the message of which is the need for tolerance.

American Masters continues its 15th season with Bob Marley: Rebel Music (PBS, Feb. 14, check local listings), an outstanding documentary about one of the world's greatest Reggae superstars. Mr. Marley used his music to fight oppression. Having grown up in Jamaican poverty, he employed his great wealth and fame to help the poor. By one estimate he saved 4,000 people or more from daily hunger.

Controversial as he was (the father of many children in and out of wedlock, and a believer in the "herbal" salutary effects of marijuana), he was a deeply religious man whose early trajectory toward crime was checked by God, in his view. Much of his music is religious, much is political, and much of it is a combination of the two.

But most of all, his music cries out for social justice and peace. Through interviews with his wife, many of his collaborators, fellow musicians, and political figures, we learn of his impact in Jamaica and around the world. Though the film does not discuss the impact of reggae on world music, it is otherwise well made and profoundly watchable.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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