School Desegregation Saga

Realistic TV drama captures the complexity of Boston school desegregation

COMMON GROUND CBS, Sunday and Tuesday, 9-11 p.m. Four-hour drama in two parts, based on the Anthony Lukas book. LIKE the Pulitzer Prize-winning book it came from, this first-rate, reality-based chronicle comes with no introduction, preface, or foreword.

``I'm Cassandra Twymon,'' says a young voice over helicopter views of downtown Boston. ``In my neighborhood, Roxbury, everybody is colored, and everybody knows everybody else. We're all friendly. Momma says that's God's way.''

It is the early '60s, as the viewer is introduced in quick-draw fashion to the three families whose stories will weave a tapestry of turbulence in Boston's decade of desegregation (1968-78): The Twymons are six children raised by a single mother (played by C.C.H. Pounder) in predominantly black Roxbury; Alice and Daniel McGoff (Jane Curtin, Daniel O'Shea) are deeply religious Irish Catholics living in the Charlestown section; Colin and Joan Diver (Richard Thomas and Mary Kane) are yuppie idealists who move to Boston's South End. Colin, a Harvard Law School graduate goes to work in the office of Mayor Kevin White (James Farentino).

It is a period of already-rising racial tensions as Mrs. Twymon and other Roxbury blacks are seen questioning the quality of local schools. An attempt by black parents to force desegregation is voted down by the local school committee, and a lawsuit from the parents group forces a federal court to decide the issue. Racial incidents - the burning of a white woman, the Memphis assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. - raise public anger to fever pitch.

If there is a flashpoint to the action, it is the court's decision to uphold Boston's Racial Imbalance Act, mandating the busing of blacks to South Boston High School in September 1974. Besides the story of three families, this is also the story of bigotry and racism, of self-serving politics and fear, community bewilderment and vulnerability. Ultimately, the true-life characters change, grow. Of particular note are Ms. Pounder as Rachel Twymon and Erika Alexander as her daughter, and Ms. Curtin as Alice McGoff. It is a pleasure to see the former Saturday Nite Live comedienne graduate so convincingly to serious drama.

``It's a yarn, but it's an instructive yarn,'' said author Anthony Lukas in a 1985 interview, when his book came out to nearly universal praise. After eight years of writing, living at times with some of the families and tracing family roots such as those of the McGoffs back to Ireland, Lukas said he wanted the reader to ``be as confounded by the complexity of a large American city as I was.''

As such, ``Common Ground'' is not particularly comfortable to watch. Grown-ups hurl invectives in community and school meetings. Teens hurl rocks through school, shop, and bus windows. Police stand in riot gear against their own neighbors. Families and neighbors are polarized over how to deal with their own venom. Filmmakers have achieved an uncanny sense of realism.

One educational advantage of ``Common Ground'' is point-of-view. The incidents are seen not through the eyes of the media - as with many in the nation who might have drawn their only knowledge of the incidents that way the first time around. Th action is seen through the eyes of the participants. The three families are in the foreground; figures such as Mayor White, Louise Day Hicks (chairwoman of the school committee), Arthur Garrity Jr. (judge) and others are in the background.

Colin Divers, for instance, is continually disillusioned at the politics of his boss, who he feels is more interested in running for governor than running his town with harmony.

As his book did not offer simplistic answers, neither does this TV incarnation. Both leave conclusions to the viewer with almost ``here it is folks'' detachment. Events unfold; scenes and principals change with little attempt to make smooth transition or tie conclusions into neat packages.

Story lines are started and dropped at will, in the style of Steven Bocho's ``Hill Street Blues'' and ``L.A. Law.'' To the film's credit, this snippet/collage approach is appealing for constant variety. But it also requires close attention.

Besides the focus on historic events, this is a look at how each of the three families clashed with their own sense of self and values vs. those of the surrounding community. Without the luxury of following the book's many circuitous and detailed delvings into Boston politics and history, the film eventually settles for closer looks at the two poorer families.

``Common Ground'' is disconcerting for the mirror it holds to inequalities in opportunity based on race, class, income, community. In keeping with the author's expressed opinion that there are no simple solutions to the problems of the cities, the miniseries' strengths are in provoking thought, self-examination. By butting heads and ideologies, these people do grow - at least beyond some tenaciously held prejudices.

``We did integrate the Boston schools; so maybe it will be better for those who come after,'' says Cassandra at the end, as if writing in her diary. ``I hope so.''

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