Times Staff Writer

In conjunction with the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, the Public Broadcasting Service is presenting two dramas tonight that relate to the black experience: "And the Children Shall Lead" and, from the James Baldwin novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Despite shortcomings in each, both programs are worthwhile viewing because they depict aspects of the country's history that are not often seen in TV drama.

"And the Children Shall Lead," airing as part of the "Wonderworks" series (7:30 p.m., Channel 50; 8 p.m., Channels 28 and 15), is the fictional story of how the lives of several black and white families in a small Mississippi town are changed by the civil rights movement in 1965.

"And the Children Shall Lead" contains more than enough material about the nature of the civil rights struggle to provide an excellent launching pad for parents interested in talking with their children about why Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday has been made a holiday.

The adaptation of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" follows "Wonderworks" at 8:30 p.m. on Channel 50 and 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15.

Baldwin's semi-autobiographical story concerns a 14-year-old boy trying, as he approaches manhood in 1935 Harlem, to shed the chains of despair that his mother and stepfather carry because of past misfortunes.

Their lives are portrayed forcefully and intriguingly, but the film doesn't pay off in the end--principally because of a fundamental difference between the print and visual media. The boy's rite of passage is a prolonged, trance-like religious experience that Baldwin explored psychologically in eloquent detail. On screen, however, because the camera cannot delve into the boy's head, the mystical journey lasts only a few minutes and, consequently, does not convey the same sense of catharsis and rebirth that the novel did.

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