Hollywood Focuses on Civil Rights

HOW refreshing to have a pair of new movies that focus on black characters and situations related to their lives. But how frustrating to face an all-too-familiar question once again: Will the filmmakers of Hollywood ever give us a movie about black Americans that doesn't fill the screen with white Americans as often as possible?

Two new pictures, ``Driving Miss Daisy'' and ``Glory,'' help correct Hollywood's longtime racial imbalance by placing African-American characters in central roles. Both pictures also have a constructive attitude that's as welcome as it is unmistakable.

But neither has enough courage to put all its emphasis on black experiences. ``Driving Miss Daisy'' is about a dignified and intelligent black man facing the difficulties of life in the South - yet he is flanked by two white characters, and their family life keeps popping into the story while his stays completely invisible. ``Glory'' features a whole regiment of African-Americans earning glory in the Civil War - yet the movie's central character is the white colonel who leads them, and the story gives almost as much attention to his problems as to the sufferings of all the black men combined.

I don't mean to criticize these films too strongly. Both are attempts to deal honestly and sensitively with characters and issues that rarely get any attention on the wide screen.

Still, it's disappointing that Hollywood won't go the last mile and make a film that gives black people all the attention for a change. Independent filmmakers do this once in a while, as when John Sayles gave us ``The Brother From Another Planet'' a few years ago. But the movie world has done some backsliding since then. Even the militant black filmmaker Spike Lee injected a white star (Danny Aiello) into his explosive ``Do the Right Thing'' when he decided it was time for his work to reach a mainstream American audience.

Looking beyond this issue, ``Driving Miss Daisy'' and ``Glory'' both have assets worth noting - especially the presence of Morgan Freeman, who dominates much of ``Daisy'' and lends an extra touch of sensitivity to ``Glory,'' although he plays only a supporting role in that picture.

Mr. Freeman's role in ``Driving Miss Daisy'' is quiet, and therefore particularly challenging. He plays Hoke Colburn, a working man whose need for a job leads him to accept a near-impossible task: becoming the chauffeur of Daisy Werthan, an aging and eccentric woman who's so stubborn that several scenes go by before she'll even admit she needs a chauffeur. The movie follows their relationship over many years, revealing subtle but important changes in Daisy - who grows closer to Hoke than she's probably aware of - and in Southern society, working its way through the Martin Luther King era.

What we don't see, regrettably, are changes in Hoke himself: He's a great guy at the beginning of the picture, and he's exactly the same great guy at the end. Nor do we see how the changing South affects his life beyond working for Miss Daisy, since the movie never shows him at home, or with his family, or in any situation outside Daisy's natural habitat.

This is a major shortcoming of the film, which is pleasant and even touching in other ways. Jessica Tandy gives a versatile performance as the title character, who has her own challenges (as a Jew and as a woman) to tackle in everyday life. Dan Aykroyd surely deserves an Academy Award nomination for his unexpectedly nuanced portrayal of her long-suffering son. And filmmaker Bruce Beresford gives a solid lift to his uneven career with his careful and colorful directing of Alfred Uhry's screenplay, based on Mr. Uhry's prize-winning stage play.

``Glory'' focuses on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment of black soldiers in American history. They were as valiant as they were unprecedented, and Abraham Lincoln cited their fighting as a turning point in the Civil War. Their virtually unknown story is well worth heeding - to correct the historical record, and to emphasize the overlooked fact that African-Americans contributed to their own hard-won freedom from the evils of slavery.

``Glory'' shows how the idea of a black regiment was developed by some Boston abolitionists, who felt freedom should extend to military service. It chronicles the long, hard training of the soldiers, in scenes that recall pictures like ``Full Metal Jacket'' and Clint Eastwood's raucous ``Heartbreak Ridge.'' It also shows a long, frustrating time when the soldiers are ready to fight but no one takes them seriously enough to send them into battle. Finally they get their chance, and we witness their courage and self-sacrificing spirit.

While these events are fascinating and important, ``Glory'' is less inspiring and enlightening than it ought to be. A key problem is the main character - partly because he's white, and thus a distraction from the film's real heroes, and partly because he's poorly acted. Matthew Broderick is a skillful and likable actor, and at first I thought he was trying a bold approach to his role, deliberately playing the young colonel as a wishy-washy twerp. But it soon becomes evident that the shortcomings are less in the concept than in the performance, which becomes more ordinary and lame as it proceeds.

Other performances are much better: It's a rare treat to see superb talents like Freeman and Denzel Washington on screen together. Yet the script, by Kevin Jarre, rarely lives up to their abilities. The screenplay is also slippery on the issue of war in general. It's hard to tell whether the filmmakers are just saluting the 54th Infantry soldiers and their moment in history, or celebrating warfare itself - which isn't such a good idea.

``Glory'' was directed by Edward Zwick and photographed by Freddie Francis, who comes up with some powerful images of war and struggle. They obviously care about the story and the little-known historical details it reveals. Yet their movie seems almost too earnest at times, like an educational or classroom film. Although one learns from it, one rarely feels exhilarated by it.

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