Blacks who changed history

Stirring documentary about Ralph Ellison; Showtime's riveting 'Keep the Faith, Baby'

Ralph Ellison was a writer as much before his times as of them. His famous work, his only finished novel, "Invisible Man," is considered one of the most influential of the 20th century. It was the first to reveal in cosmic terms the African-American experience. It was recognized for its depth, its allusions, and its revelations about African-American culture, and it resonated with themes from the Bible and from Shakespeare.

Yet, in his own time, he was denounced by some black activists as an Uncle Tom because his book did not meet their standards of political rage, and because in the end of the novel, though his young hero has been horribly disabused of all his ideals, he rejects cynicism and hatred.

Even his harshest critics conceded that he was a true artist. A thoughtful, stirring documentary by Avon Kirkland, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (PBS, American Masters, Feb. 19, check local listings) reveals how hurt he was by those who failed to see what he had accomplished.

But the great thing about this heartening program is that however misunderstood Ellison was in the depths of the turbulent '60s, his work stands: It is a great work of art, and no ideological criticism can change that fact.

"Ellison gave us a compelling examination of African-American experience and what it means," said Mr. Kirkland in a recent interview. "Race, for him, fit into a larger perspective. He was a disciplined and profound thinker, as well as a great artist. He spent his life reflecting on these issues about where we are and where we come from."

For Kirkland, the film was a work of profound love and respect. "I have come to believe from learning about [Ellison's] and African-American history that the contributions of African-Americans to the American democratic experience are undervalued."

The contribution of African slaves to the early American economy has not been properly appreciated, nor has the fact that the presence of freed slaves made necessary the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. He points to the contributions of black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who practically invented civil rights law.

What some black activists did not understand about Ellison in the '60s, Kirkland says, was that it was not a matter of "either/or" - either you are a protest writer or you're not making a contribution. It was a matter of "both/and" - both protest art and the graceful high art of an artistic elder were needed to further the cause of African-Americans and other minorities in the still-evolving American democracy.

Ellison was seen as being a heroic individualist who left community action out of the equation. "But there should never have been an argument between heroic individualism and political activism," Kirkland says.

* * *

A far more controversial figure is also remembered this Black History Month - an in-your-face politician who fought for important changes in the law for minorities and women. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the congressman from Harlem who organized black voters even before Martin Luther King Jr. led the fight for civil rights in the South. Keep the Faith, Baby (Showtime, Feb. 17, 8-10 p.m.) is a riveting docudrama based on his life as told to a young reporter.

Powell was a charismatic figure, a preacher with a powerful speaking style. He also remains a somewhat notorious figure. This film attempts to rehabilitate him in the eyes of the public. And it is not entirely successful, though it is certainly eye-opening and knee-deep in political history.

Powell had a knack for ticking off other congressmen and even other black leaders. In the film, we hear him refer to Martin Luther King Jr. as Martin Loser King. King was too peace-centered for the confrontational Powell.

Still, the film argues that among his accomplishments as chairman of the prestigious House Education and Labor Committee were legislation that resulted in the minimum wage law; equal pay for equal work; student loans, financial aid, and vocational training; the National Endowment for the Arts; and aid to public schools and public libraries. He even single-handedly desegregated the House lunchroom.

In one amusing scene, a Southern congressman refuses to sit next to Powell during a House session. Powell follows the congressman from seat to seat, until the aggravated man leaves the House in a huff.

Powell had powerful enemies, the film argues, partly because he wore his arrogance like a talisman. He was ousted from his seat for improprieties such as making questionable travel expenditures and keeping relatives on the payroll. Powell insisted he did nothing worse than most of his colleagues.

But the screenplay is less convincing when it tries to argue those improprieties away - even on the grounds of his enemies' hypocrisy. And even the young reporter at the end of the film gives his version of the events of Powell's life and then declares he's not sure what the truth is.

Whether or not this particular version of the Powell story is completely true, it is at least gripping. Harry Lennix plays Powell with so much style and energy, and with so many twists of emotion that he steals every scene - just as Powell himself was want to do. His complex and vivid performance is the best reason to watch.

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