A bargain basement 'Gone With the Wind'
New York — "Psychologically and politically dangerous" is the way the newly formed Black Anti-Defamation Coalition refers to NBC's new miniseries about the pre-and post-Civil War South: "Beulah Land" (NBC, Tuesday, 8-10 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 9-11 p.m.; check local listings).
"Simplistic and exploitative" are two even more apt words that might have been substituted.
"Beulah Land," based on two novels by Lonnie Coleman, is bargain-basement "Gone With the Wind." While obviously meant as nothing more than pure escapist entertainment, the sad fact is that in its lustful money- hungry craving for big audience numbers, it somehow manages to demean the recent memories of such fine, carefully considered, serious TV programs as "Roots I and II" and the "Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," which handled similar material with perception and sensitivity.
Just about every cotton-pickin' cliche gets a thorough workout in this six-hour you-all yawner adapted by Jacques Meunier, directed by Virgil Vogel and Harry Falk. The 45 years, from 1827 through 1872, are condensed into six long hours in which the viewer must keep track of the family saga of the Kendricks, the Davises, the Corleys, and all their husbands, wives, various-hued children, miscegenations, misanthropies, and philanthropies . . . all the while people keep mouthing dialogue like "Someday you gonna be the massa, boy, and I want you to start acting like the massa now," and "Missee, you gotta start trainin' up for to be a lady."
And those, folks, are the good lines.
"Beulah Land" was tastefully miscast with a coven of fine actors, all managing to give their worst performances ever, all struggling with a variety of Southern accents seemingly right out of the Yugoslav Actors' Studio.
The end of the civil War is signaled by the mass dropping of Southern accents by most members of the relieved troupe, among whom are numbered Lesley Ann Warren, Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael Sarrazin, Eddie Albert, Paul Rudd, Hope Lange, Dorian Harewood, Clarice Taylor, and innumerable others who should have known better.
All actors, black and white, take their roles seriously, and it is an intense six hours. That's one of the miniseries' main problems -- it treats what should have been a harmlessly assinine lark as if it were the Emancepation Proclamation.
although supposedly occuring in Georgia, the film was shot on location in Mississippi. But who's complaining -- at least there are gorgeous antebellum plantations and real cotton fields to distract you . . . when th dialogue doesn't get in your line of view.
In an obvious gesture to protesting black groups, not all of the good guys are white -- many of the blacks are good guys, too. In fact mostm of them are, and perhaps a White Anti-Defamation League will also be formed before this airs to protect the reputations of reasonable Southern whites from cheap exploitation , too. but most of the blacks tend to be loyal to the "massas," almost ready to give up their newfound freedom to keep the li'l ol' plantation in Missee's delicate hands.
Most objectionable is the simplistic view that white liberals and their Northern white friends, together with well-educated blacks, can made a new South.
The trouble with "Beulah Land" is that it doesn't "know its place." Perhaps it was barely passable as a good old-fashioned summer print "read" about 10 years ago. But as an electronic mass entertainment (chances are it will be viewed by more than 50 million people) liable to insult or mislead Americans of all colors, it quite simply has no place in the television of the 1980s.