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'GOOD FENCES' FOLLOWS BLACK NEIGHBORS IN A WHITE WORLD.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

'GOOD FENCES'' sneakily lulls viewers into its provocative racial debate. Set in the 1970s, an era of ill-advised home furnishings and massively impressive Afros, the Showtime film stars Danny Glover as Tom Spader, a rising attorney who believes his defense of a white suspect against charges of arson in a fire that killed two black children is a good career move, although riots and death threats are an unintended result.

His wife, Mabel (Whoopi Goldberg), goes with the flow, a year later happily moving into an all-white suburban enclave (even their home's interiors are bathed in off-whites, eggshells and ecrus) and earning hard-won acceptance from the dithering, WASP-ish housewives whose encounters with persons of color is limited to berating the help for losing a napkin ring.

Soon, however, Tom's dreams of assimilation become Mabel's, as she trades in her cheesy soap operas and Baptist church for her new peers' painkillers and visits to an achingly pristine grocery store. Initially bewildered by her new surroundings, she laments, ``This is like some kind of weird movie where they decided to pass out scripts to everybody but me.''

But by the time a friend from her old neighborhood visits, Mabel soon realizes she's become as distanced from her past as she is from her current circle of friends. A visit to her rural family underscores her disconnection - Tom, appalled, avoids greasy foods while Mabel is shocked to reunite with her high-school suitor, whose current get-rich scheme involves creating an all-black airline funded by a mail-order pork business. (``Good Fences'' trucks in equal-opportunity caricatures.)

And it only gets worse when their lily-white neighborhood is overrun by a single extra black neighbor - an apparently crass lottery winner at that (Mo'Nique).

``Good Fences'' is a scathing satire of the no-man's land in which upwardly mobile blacks can find themselves evading charges of Uncle Tom-ism while secretly praying those charges aren't true. (Tom can't bear to watch the brutal realities of the miniseries ``Roots,'' yet watches passively as an episode of ``The Partridge Family'' soft-sells racial issues.) Tom and Mabel's children negotiate the same obstacles - to wildly divergent fates.

Executive-produced by Spike Lee, Glover and Goldberg, and directed by Ernest Dickerson, who has made some of the most noteworthy TV movies in recent years (``Our America,'' ``Blind Faith,'' ``Strange Justice,'' ``Monday Night Mayhem'' and ``Confessions of a Campus Bookie''), ``Good Fences'' recalls in a way a more genteel version of Chris Rock's classic routine on everyday blacks vs. their coarser (and more coarsely monikered) counterparts. When the story comes full circle - and a flashback reveals the grotesque brush with racism from which Tom has worked his entire life to distance himself - the satire feels a little overheated.

And yet ``Good Fences'' misses being a genuinely important movie by only a fraction, as even in its narrative missteps it underscores how vexingly difficult it is to have a sane discussion on race in America (maybe Trent Lott should host screenings). Does the viewer want Tom to get away with his crime? And why, exactly - racism, liberal guilt or a complex combination of the two?

Glover is reliably excellent, while this is Goldberg's best work - and best material - in a long time (she's currently bolstering her renaissance by co-starring with Charles Dutton in ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' on Broadway). Their marquee value probably helped material as tricky as this get made; thoughtful discussions should last well after the credits run their course. At any rate, ``Good Fences'' is far more interesting material than the usual staid productions that greet viewers during Black History Month.

GOOD FENCES - Three stars

What: An upwardly mobile black couple, played by Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg, discovers the dark side of assimilation.

Where: Showtime.

When: 8 tonight; also Feb. 12, 15 and 25.

In a nutshell: Terribly uneven - particularly by the end - but there's some shockingly inspired satire on the complications that racial perceptions create in America.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) Danny Glover and Whoopi Goldberg move to an all-white neighborhood in the '70s in ``Good Fences.''
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 2, 2003
Words:679
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