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PBS Home Video presents
America Beyond the Color Line (2003)

"Two distinct classes have emerged in America, and they're both black." 
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: May 06, 2005

Stars: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Other Stars: Jesse Jackson, Vernon Jordan, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones, Franklin Raines, Don Cheadle 
Director: Dan Percival, Mary Crisp

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:44m:56s
Release Date: February 08, 2005
UPC: 841887050005
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of America's most prominent scholars and chairman of the department of African and African American Studies at Harvard, here takes on the mantle of one of the most illustrious black intellectuals in American history—at the turn of the last century, W.E.B. DuBois surveyed the American scene, and took stock of the lives of Americans of African descent, and how they were faring in American society as a whole. Rather than putting pen to paper, at the turn of this century Gates teamed up with a documentary film crew, and the four-part series that resulted, originally broadcast on PBS, is an informative, reasonably candid and frequently star-struck overview of the issues and problems facing African Americans today.

So much of our media is celebrity-driven, and it's clear from the jump that even Harvard professors aren't immune; it's not a promising beginning, really, with Gates' first interview subject being Morgan Freeman. Freeman is of course a gifted and accomplished actor, but in truth having him as an expert commentator on the subject at hand is like having Cornel West star in a remake of The Shawshank Redemption. But things pick up in the first installment, The Black Belt, a look at race in the South. Gates goes to Memphis, and visits with its black mayor and police chief; of course he pays his respects at the motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. He also takes a look at the military, which, despite its racist past, has in many ways become a paragon of integration; and with an interracial couple in Birmingham; perhaps most revealing is his visit with a realtor in Atlanta, who demonstrates that garish taste and a liking for hideous McMansions cuts across all ethnicities. In truth, what's scariest here is not overt racism, but the desire to migrate as quickly as possible to gated communities; surely Dr. King's highest ideals weren't for black people to have equal geographical proximity to Starbucks and Einstein Brothers.

There's no small amount of euphemism in the discussion of race relations—for instance, we learn that "culturally diverse neighborhoods" means in fact "all-black neighborhoods," an almost Orwellian instance of words not saying what they mean. Gates' status gives him all kinds of access, and he's a genial, disarming interviewer; he has no Charlie Rose-like self-involvement, and seems to put all of his subjects very much at ease, allowing for candor and the free flow of ideas. Part II, Streets of Heaven, is a look at the great black migration from the South to Chicago, and a consideration of the failed massive housing projects like the Robert Taylor homes. The economic despair is palpable; these black neighborhoods are riddled with crime and drugs, and every young man there knows that he can make more money dealing than frying chicken at Popeye's—which is exactly why a disproportionately high percentage of them are in prison, which Gates visits as well. (As Jesse Jackson points out to Gates here, there are more young black men in jail than in college.)

Gates modestly asserts his street cred, but he seems more at home in Part III, Ebony Towers, featuring a visit to Harvard, and conversations with some of the most successful black Americans, including Colin Powell, Russell Simmons, and Vernon Jordan. Especially interesting are the efforts by Maurice Ashley, the first African American international chess grandmaster, to use the game to leverage opportunity for Harlem school children; the community center at which he works is wallpapered with college acceptance letters for kids from the neighborhood. (Also interviewed here as one of the great success stories is a man whose star has fallen mightily since this documentary series was produced a couple of years ago: Franklin Raines, the former head of Fannie Mae, who talks about making possible the dream of home ownership for the masses, but who oversaw Enron-like bookkeeping practices that overstated earnings by $9 billion.)

Finally, Gates' thing for celebrity is absolutely unabashed in Black Hollywood, which features the professor going to the MTV Movie Awards, going to church with Chris Tucker, hanging out with Samuel L. Jackson, and dropping in on an Alicia Keyes video shoot. Producer Arnon Milchan is candid in discussing how movies starring black actors can be counted on to gross 50% less than ones starring their white counterparts; and Gates surveys the impact of that up and down the Hollywood food chain, with Don Cheadle, Quincy Jones, John Singleton, Nia Long, and an apartment full of struggling young actors looking for their big break. Among the most provocative discussions here concern divisions within the black community: is it easier for white audiences to accept lighter-skinned blacks than darker-skinned ones?

Overall, Gates's tone is concerned but hopeful; neither he nor any of those he speaks with offer quick bromides or platitudes. You almost sort of wish that the whole series was a little less polite, but it's certainly intellectually nourishing, and should help to further the discussion about race relations in America in only positive and productive ways.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Professional if unremarkable transfer, that's a little high on contrast, but with very little debris. 

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: There's some static from location shooting, but it's all audible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 4 cues and remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:52m:35s

Extras Review: The only extra of note is an overcut interview (10m:34s) with Gates, in which he discusses his favorite moments and interview subjects from the series, and about the candor that came about only because so many of the discussions were carried on away from what Toni Morrison would call "the white gaze."

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A candid and useful overview from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reinforcing the idea that what W.E.B. DuBois said about the last century could still be said about our own: "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."


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