Common Ground arrives at a time when most made-for-TV movies are based on hack fiction by the likes of Danielle Steel and Frederick Forsyth. CBS is, therefore, to be commended for tackling J. Anthony Lukas’ complex, admirable, Pulitzer Prize-winning, and frequently boring-as-hell piece of reportage about the civil rights era.
Lukas’ idea was to follow three families through the time of Boston’s late ’60s school desegregation. In maintaining Lukas’ structure, the four hours of Common Ground must keep in motion what amounts to three separate TV movies.
One features C.C.H. Pounder as the mother of a black Roxbury family whose children are bused to a school in white Charlestown. Pounder’s children are taunted with racial epithets and attacked by crowds of angry white kids.
Among those kids are the children of an Irish Catholic woman played by Jan Curtin. Curtin’s Alice McGoff is no racist, but she sees forced busing as inevitably leading to confusion and overcrowding.
Somewhere in the middle is Richard Thomas as a lawyer advising Mayor Kevin White to implement desegregation as city policy. Thomas moves with his wife and child to a black slum in a bit of proto-gentrification. He is meant to seem smart but hopelessly idealistic; by the end, he’s walking tall around his neighborhood with a Buford Pusser slugger in his hand, batting at muggers.
All the lead actors are wonderful: Pounder conveys fear, anger, hope, and bitterness without straining for trumped-up TV-movie dignity. Curtin transcends her sitcom persona to play an uneducated but intelligent woman forced to articulate her family’s frustration. And Richard Thomas makes the most of his dreary bleeding-heart, rendering him a callow but brave man.
The miniseries itself is far more problematic. For one thing, the main characters didn’t really know one another, so there’s little dramatic cohesion. But more crucial, in adapting Lukas’ book, screenwriter Edward Hume had to come up with a way to turn Lukas’ arguments into video action.
Hume opted to retain Lukas’ most dramatic set pieces — the violent quarrels and demonstrations, the rough handling both sides received at the hands of the Boston police — but he discarded most of Lukas’ ideological underpinning, the long discussions of why and how it all came to this.
The result is a startling contradiction of what Lukas intended. Rooted in liberal theory and political analysis, the book said that, for all its enormous difficulty, desegregation was a noble, heroic, sensible goal.
In concentrating on visual images of strife and suffering, the TV movie says it was a cruel, debilitating, probably pointless effort. This week, not even Hemingway has had his work as distorted as thoroughly as this. B-