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Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

There are so many compellingly conflicted emotions and roiling issues pulsing through the CBS miniseries ``Sally Hemings: An American Scandal'' that to ultimately couch it as a sweeping love story seems something of a cop-out. But that's network TV for you. This is ``Roots'' reimagined as ``The Thorn Birds,'' but darned if they don't let some intelligence seep through occasionally.

Even the opening lines sound like a romance novel, not a highlight of Black History Month. ``I was born to slavery but destined to scandal,'' Sally Hemings (Carmen Ejogo) tells us in a voice-over while she plays innocently on a swing; already, you're searching for the remote. But the film finds its footing as it conjoins Hemings and Thomas Jefferson (Sam Neill) smoothly and credibly (in an artful conceit, mirrors play a key role in their introductions and subsequent meetings).

Hemings and Jefferson became close while he was Aerica's ambassador in France and he tutored her; even though she could have remained in France a free woman, she returned home with him, carrying his child. The film gives her an added incentive to return to America - the French Revolution is tearing up the countryside around them; in fact, were it not for a well-read and fortuitously located peasant rioter who knew the ambassador's essays on freedom, ``Hemings'' suggests, there may have never been a President Jefferson.

For years, the Monticello Association, official protectors of the Jefferson legacy, rejected the notion that Jefferson and Hemings had children together, despite the claims of Hemings' ancestors and the historical record suggesting that many plantation owners helped themselves to their slaves. The interesting question is, from what did they think they were defending Jefferson? The charge that he slept with and perhaps loved a black woman, or that he used his power to dominate someone in a subordinate position? It all became a moot point in 1998, when tests suggested that Hemings' and Jefferson's ancestors shared the same DNA.

But at this point, our lovers have, shall we say, many issues to work out. Him: A highly respected statesman who risks derision and national censure by loving a woman barely considered a second-class citizen, tormented by the fact that his infant nation is years from accepting the truths in its own Declaration of Independence. Still, he perpetuates his own dilemma by owning scores of slaves himself and treating his own children by her as servants. Her: A young woman, given privileges unheard of among those in her class and spurning her race by declaring love for a man who enslaves them, who could change everything for her and her people but doesn't. And we think Clinton's relationships were hopelessly dysfunctional.

Screenwriter Tina Andrews frequently addresses these nettlesome issues in a series of impassioned scenes between the lovers. ``You cannot come to my bed, then go to your white Congress and do nothing about this plague on my people,'' Sally boldly scolds Jefferson at one point. Trouble is, yes he can. ``You don't hate me, you love me,'' he replies after one roundelay, and that settles it, more or less.

But it couldn't have, really. Andrews knows this is where the heart of her drama lies, but can't quite resolve their impasses philosophically, just lushly and carnally. Instead, she sets up external villains - Jefferson's prudish daughter Martha (Mare Winningham), a ludicrously foppish journalist who hounds Jefferson about his mistress - and rushes through Jefferson's presidency so that the country's reaction goes relatively unexplored.

Director Charles Haid opts to divert our attention away from these prickly problems by staging a lot of ornate party sequences with large groups of extras gaily milling about that give this a sense of spectacle without contributing to the real drama at hand.

In fact, this probably would've been better had it been shaved down an hour or so. The stately pace serves the edict that miniseries have a certain amount of bombast, but not the subject matter itself, and after hour three, which addresses the crux of their paradox with the most immediacy, the final hour (warning: distracting elderly-folks makeup) just sort of peters out.

Ejogo makes for a wonderfully empathetic romantic heroine, delicate yet headstrong; when Jefferson tells her early on, ``My instincts tell me you have a good mind,'' they've barely met, but the flash in her eyes and her presence ensure that it's more than just a come-on line. There's a little too much effort to make Ejogo glamorous - it's a little strange halfway through when her grown children look as old as she does.

Neill, who can be a kind of jittery, caffeinated actor, relaxes here; he's always good at making the best of a bad scene or line of dialogue, and that serves him well a few times here. On the whole, ``Sally Hemings'' does what's required in terms of formulaic television, but had it aspired for a little more, it could've been a true TV event.

``Homicide: the Movie'' opens with Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto), running for mayor of Baltimore on a legalize-drugs platform - Baltimore may be the only city where that strategy would actually make a candidate the front-runner. When he's gunned down at a campaign appearance, there's the requisite montage in which cast members of the acclaimed TV series learn of the news and, no matter what they were doing, turn up in the squad room, ready for action. Bringing everyone back tends to be an unwieldy piece of overkill, because there's simply not enough time for everyone to contribute meaningfully.

Wisely, the film focuses on former partners Pembleton (Andre Braugher, an Emmy winner for this role) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor, nicely underplaying opposite Braugher's commanding bravado), who investigate in an unofficial fashion. Except for a shocker halfway through, it is their scenes that carry the most resonance.

There's a little too much strolling down memory lane - characters too often say, ``Wasn't that when ...'' which is invariably followed by quick flashbacks to episodes from the show. And the jittery editing style has become a little affected at this point - you know it's gone too far when one character even dreams in that manner. The movie also seems to have a problem knowing when to wrap things up - there seems to be no fewer than four endings. Still, it's largely arresting. (Before the film, Court TV will present the series' final two episodes at 6 p.m.)

``It's Black Entertainment'' offers a sterling if incomplete compilation of rare and famous footage of African-American entertainers doing what they do best. Divided into seven segments ranging from dance (highlighted by an amazing sequence by the Nicholas brothers, Fayard and Harold, from the film ``Stormy Weather'') to hip-hop, it's a scattershot journey that leaves the viewer ready to see more.

``Entertainment'' ranges from the sublime - Billie Holiday (whose name is misspelled just as someone laments her struggle for respect), Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole - to the curious (a one-legged tapper named ``Crip'' Heard). From the ebullience of the performances, one would never guess at the racism that the early, ground-breaking entertainers endured when not on stage, but on-camera interviewees provide perspective (though they ladle the superlatives on a bit too thickly).

The focus on film seems a tad arbitrary, since many of the clips are from rare short films featuring performers who otherwise weren't movie stars. It also makes for some glaring omissions, such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and a host of contemporary jazz musicians, not to mention Whatever Prince Calls Himself Today (who, in fact, did several films). But what is included is stellar stuff.

The facts

--The show: ``Sally Hemings: An American Scandal.''

--What: Docudrama about Thomas Jefferson's affair with a strong-willed slave.

--Who: Sam Neill, Carmen Ejogo, Diahann Carroll, Mare Winningham, Mario Van Peebles.

--Where: CBS (Channel 2).

--When: 9 tonight and Wednesday.

--Our rating: Three stars.

--The show: ``Homicide: The Movie.''

--What: Telefilm spinning off the acclaimed crime procedural drama.

--Who: Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Kyle Secor, Giancarlo Esposito, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer.

--Where: NBC (Channel 4).

--When: 9 tonight.

--Our rating: Three stars.

--The show: ``It's Black Entertainment.''

--What: Documentary on African-American pop culture.

--Who: Hosted by Vanessa Williams.

--Where: Showtime.

--When: 8 tonight.

-- Our rating: Three stars.


2 photos

Photo: (1) Michael Michele and Clark Johnson reunite with the rest of their TV cast for ``Homicide: The Movie,'' at 9 tonight on NBC.

(2) Vanessa Williams hosts Showtime's ``It's Black Entertainment.''
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Feb 13, 2000

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