Stowe's explosive pre-Civil War classic on TV

Uncle Tom's Cabin Showtime pay cable channel, Saturday (and June 24, 29, July 2, 7, check local listings for times). Screenwriter: John Gay (based on the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel). Directed by Stan Lathan. Starring Avery Brooks, Phylicia Rashad, and Edward Woodward. Avery Brooks as Uncle Tom? You've got to be kidding.

After all, Mr. Brooks plays the savvy black character Hawk in the TV series ``Spenser for Hire,'' and his one-man stage show, ``Paul Robeson,'' was a powerful statement of black defiance and dignity in the face of racial prejudice. What's a socially conscious artist like that doing in a title role whose very name is a despised clich'e for the submissive black man?

For one thing, he's shunning the mawkish stereotype - developed over the years, of a cringing Uncle Tom - offering instead a self-possessed figure of compassion and wisdom. For another, his thoughtful and commanding performance is helping this interesting and sometimes revealing production restore Harriet Beecher Stowe's enormously influential novel to its original status as a cry against slavery. Ironically, that novel - published in 1852 - reflects considerable ideological ambiguity. Although its best-known part is about a pious black man's nobility in the face of a cruel and degenerate owner, it paints a generally more charitable image of slaveholders than many previous anti-slavery novels. But its huge success made it the worldwide symbol of anti-slavery sentiment. It was publicly burned in the South - and also vilified in the North, for Tom's ``meekness'' and other reasons - leading to Lincoln's famous statement on meeting Stowe, ``So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war.''

The insulting ``Uncle Tom'' image was pressed on the public mind not because of the novel but through the ``Uncle Tom'' stage shows that capitalized on the book's huge success. They presented crowd-pleasing distortions of the original Uncle Tom, who became a racist caricature of Stowe's character - a shuffling, fawning figure.

Seeing just a few minutes of Brooks as Uncle Tom is enough to dispel that picture. Take the time one of Tom's masters, Augustine St. Clair (played by Bruce Dern), tells him, ``I've started proceedings to grant you your enfranchisement'' (Victorian-ese for making him free). Brooks's expression is a combination of fierce joy and tragic awareness. ``Free, Lord, free,'' he says, allowing himself an exultant laugh. But the shadow of slavery's memory stays on his face. He's like the black chain-gang prisoner in the Southern folk song ``Take This Hammer,'' who escapes and says that if his captors ask ``... was I laughin'? Tell 'em I was crying.'' Brooks's intelligence and composure legitimize Tom's martyrdom for viewers - not fleeing from a slave trader, for instance, because others might suffer retribution. His attitude has its basis in an enlightened Christian attitude that is not a tool of white dominance. When Simon Legree tells him to flog another slave - a black woman Tom has tried to help - Brooks says no with a compelling tone of benign finality, as if gently breaking the moral facts of life to this monster.

Brooks has said the model for this regenerated vision is not Uncle Tom but an actual slave named Josiah Henson, who escaped to freedom in Canada with his children - a man described by Stowe in her ``Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin,'' written in 1853. Brooks has stated that the reality of Henson's experience has more meaning to him as an actor and black man than Stowe's fictional character.

You can believe it when you watch his deceptively complex Tom, a man of deep spiritual calm broken with flashes of distinctly unmartyrish emotion. He can tell a woman who proposes the murder of Legree, ``You run for your life, for without faith you will not survive this place,'' and make you understand why he's saying it. Occasionally certain players struggle a bit with the ``genteel sentiments'' and flowery statements of the time, but most of the cast - like Phylicia Rashad (from ``The Cosby Show'') as Eliza, who makes her famous flight to freedom - is strong and convincing. Edward Woodward (from ``The Equalizer'') makes you realize once again what all the fuss was about when the novel was published, as the satanic Legree, living in a wreck of a mansion surrounded by debris-strewn land, debases his slaves.

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