The city of Atlanta, Georgia, is terrorized by a rash of child murders occurring in its black community. When a black photographer is arrested for the crimes, controversy erupts over ...
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The city of Atlanta, Georgia, is terrorized by a rash of child murders occurring in its black community. When a black photographer is arrested for the crimes, controversy erupts over whether he is the actual killer or a scapegoat offered up by the city's mostly black leadership. Based on actual events.Written by
We've got ourselves a black mayor, we've got ourselves a black commissioner of public safety, black councilman, we've got everything black from top to bottom! We got everything! But protection for our black children.
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Originally shown on CBS as a two-part mini-series, part 1 ran for two hours and part 2 ran for three hours. The UK VHS version was released (circa 1985) as a three-part mini-series. See more »
In the 1980s black children began disappearing from the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, and it took the authorities quite a while to catch on. The press wasn't paying much attention because the murder of a visitor of high social standing was dominating the news. But because of the prodding by police detective Morgan Freeman and the pro bono investigations of a former detective Michael Sheen, the polaroid image of a serious serial killer slowly emerges from the emulsion. They got him, but not before many more victims.
It would have been easy to turn this into a politically correct story of indifferent white mayors and cops versus innocent, quietly suffering black families. That's what I expected, since this was written by Abby Mann, who also wrote "Judgment at Nuremburg," in which every single German was guilty of being complicit in the Nazi genocidal program. There was simple good, and then there was simple evil. He accepted his Academy Award "in the name of all intellectuals everywhere." For whatever reason -- perhaps because Atlanta was run largely by African-Americans -- Mann provides a much more balanced film here. It's a surprisingly intelligent script. James Earl Jones, who in real life radiates good will, is the stubborn mayor who refuses to address the problem with all the city's resources. The police treat the early disappearances as examples of bad parenting in dysfunctional families, forcing the mothers to take lie detector tests and otherwise humiliating them.
The antagonists themselves are now black "from top to bottom." Some of the white guys are actually on the side of the angels, while Atlanta's black community is quick to blame whites for trying to kill off blacks. The African-Americans are not only mistaken but their anger seems to be only a recent explosion of their underlying hatred of whites. "Hate is the only reality," shouts one protester, demonstrating the point. Acknowleding black racism in a made-for-TV movie is unusual enough to warrant the observation that we're all imperfect.
Atlanta's black children are understandably terrified. They're just old enough to understand the threat. And their denials and fantasies are sadly uninformed. One boasts that the killer will never get him because he's watched so many Bruce Lee movies and has learned Dai Gwan Do.
After a year and a half and a few dozen bodies, the bridges of Atlanta have been staked out by police. One cop hears a splash and alerts the others. The man driving slowly off the bridge is Wayne Williams, a presentable young black man who wears aviator glasses. He's a perfect target and the authorities are desperate, yet no one saw him stop his car, drag a bundle to the rail, and drop it into the Chatahootchie River, nor does an immediate search turn up a body. Williams is picked up and questioned by the police. He fails a polygraph test and his lawn and home become the center of a paroxysm of media attention. The press is savaged but Williams himself begins to do things that are weird. He calls a "press conference" in which he just hands out papers of his mostly faked resumé. He brags about having outwitted his police tail.
When he's arrested, he's defended by Jason Robards, Jr.. The prosecution is led by the grim Rip Torn, aided by Andy Robinson, a human teratoma, the serial killer from "Dirty Harry." The movie clearly takes Williams' side. In a script by Abby Mann there must be outrage against injustice. There must be impassioned speeches. Any intellectual will tell you that.
I won't go through the trial itself, which is presented in the usual Perry Mason fashion: the prosecution spends a moment presenting evidence; the defense by the unimpeachable Jason Robards, Jr., spends twice that time tearing it apart. It's easy to cast doubt on scientific evidence because science is based on probability, never certainty. That rules out "yes" and "no." If you ask a scientist to say he's absolutely certain of something, he must answer no. Will the sun rise tomorrow? The only correct answer is "probably." Then again every study has limitations. You say the DNA at the crime scene matches that of the suspect. Did you test the DNA of everyone on earth? No? Then you can't be sure, can you? Of course eyewitness testimony is more appealing but even more likely to be suspect, as social psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated.
Morgan Freeman's juiced up detective is a triumph. He's an exceptional actor who has always elevated whatever film he's appeared in, through villainous and heroic roles. Sheen is casual and effective. Some of the supporting cast stand out as well, including Lynne Moody as a bereaved and angry single parent, while others out-herod Herod. CCH Pounder is memorable too. And Ruby Dee, my co-star, is always reliable. Ernest Harden Jr. as a street smart witness called "Cool Breeze" is side splitting.
The media are shown as ruthless agents of tabloid journalism. That's okay, but Mann has the message spelled out by a shouting parent, while it's already been amply displayed on screen. The script doesn't always give the viewer much credit for sensitivity. The camera lingers on a hysterically sobbing mother. If anyone wants to see how such grief can be handled differently, watch Fritz Lang's "M", a German movie about a child murder, in which mothers grieve mostly offscreen. Lang figured that we already KNOW they're mourning.
John Erman has exercised care in his direction. Excellent staging and camera placement, without directorial excess, except for one or two dysrhythmic shots. The editing is noticeably good too; some of the cuts come at precisely the right unexpected instant.
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