"The Atlanta Child Murders" has as much dual personality as Wayne Williams was accused of having when he was tried in 1982.
Many Atlanta leaders are outraged about this two-part drama airing at 8 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday on Channels 2 and 8, and they had demanded air time for rebuttal. One Georgia state senator charged on "The CBS Morning News" recently that the docudrama erred in depicting Atlanta leaders as having been more concerned about the city's image than the mysterious killings that terrorized its black community over a 22-month period starting in 1979.
He feared that the CBS program would harm the city's image.
On the one hand, "The Atlanta Child Murders" is TV at its boldest, a stirring, heartbreaking, incisive account of an explosive case that baffled embarrassed Atlanta authorities and frenzied much of the media. At its best it is co-executive producer and scriptwriter Abby Mann's frontal charge at some of the underlying causes of urban crime.
On the other hand, it is classic docudrama sans docu , five hours that in effect indict docudrama as a genre even as they indict the process that convicted Williams. The story works fine as drama, but where is the documentation?
The program will carry an advisory saying that it is "not a documentary but a drama based on certain facts. . . . " But which facts? The advisory also will say that "some of the events and characters are fictionalized for dramatic purposes." But which events and characters?
Williams, who is black, is serving two concurrent life sentences for two murders. Although both victims were in their 20s, Atlanta police claimed that Williams, a then-23-year-old aspiring music promoter, was also responsible for nearly all the murders of black children that had plagued the city's black community for nearly two years.
After Williams was convicted in a spectacular nine-week trial, police closed the books on 22 of those child murders, even though Williams had been charged with the murder of two adults only. A weird bit of paper juggling.
The city heaved a sigh. A serial murderer was behind bars. Maybe.
"The Atlanta Child Murders" is utterly compelling, a tense thriller beginning with the discovery of two bodies of young boys within 100 yards of each other. As more and more bodies are found--John Erman directs these sequences movingly while conveying a sense of the grisly--the black community is seized by fear and hysteria. There are no real clues. No arrests.
Williams is ultimately suspected after a police recruit on a stakeout observes him driving near the Chattahootchee River, where some of the bodies had been found. The recruit says he heard a splash. Short, pudgy, spectacled and seemingly benign, Williams is an unlikely suspect. Later, after the bodies of Nathaniel Cater, 27, and Jimmy Ray Payne, 21, are found in the river, Williams is charged with their murders.
Williams' trial occupies the second part of "The Atlanta Child Murders," and is as fascinating as most actual trials are tedious, thanks to Erman.
Jason Robards as Williams' sly main defense attorney Alvin Binder and Rip Torn as prosecutor Lewis Slaton are a spellbinding pair in court, and Martin Sheen is convincing as Chet Dettlinger, the former Atlanta policeman who conducted an independent investigation, aided the defense and was a paid consultant to Mann.
Nearly all the other major characters are black, and the performances are universally first-rate--offered by actors who are seldom seen in substantive roles on TV, because there are few substantive roles for blacks on TV.
Calvin Levels captures the enigma of Williams, and Morgan Freeman is excellent as Ben Shelter, who narrates the story as a police lieutenant sympathetic to Williams. James Earl Jones booms as a pragmatic police major named Walker. There's also some fine work in smaller roles: Gloria Foster as Camille Bell and Lynne Moody as Selena Cobb, both mothers of victims; Homer Williams as the convicted murderer's father and a gem of a bit by Ernest Harden Jr. as Cool Breeze, a junkie testifying against Williams.
As pure drama, "The Atlanta Child Murders" sizzles. As docudrama, though, it fizzles.
Mann's central thesis is that Williams, though convicted, was not proved guilty of the two adult murders and, at the very least, he was not linked to the string of child slayings.
Mann shows us the crazies and demagogues who exploited the murders for publicity and personal gain. That's on the record. Mann shows us the terrible media abuses, parents of victims being hounded at their most vulnerable moments by reporters and TV cameras, and he shows us Williams being indicted by some of the media even before he was charged. That's on the record too.
And then he begins sinking into the bog.
"The Atlanta Child Murders" is a TV news investigation of sorts that bears Abby Mann's footprints, but not his footnotes. That's his byline, and it's up to him to back up the story.
Mann floats the Wayne Williams scapegoat theory: That the Atlanta police and black establishment were looking for a way off the hook and Williams became the way. That's Mann's position. All right, document it.
The Ben Shelter character helps tilt the story in Williams' favor. Shelter articulates the pro-Williams position. Shelter is supposed to be an actual cop, but Shelter is not his real name. It's a pseudonym, but we're not told that. Thus, Mann is using an anonymous source whom we are asked to trust merely because Mann inserted him into the story.
Because of time limitations, Mann can only lightly touch on the massive court testimony. What he tells us leans in Williams' favor. But what did he omit? We don't know.
There is a critical sequence at the end of the story after Williams' conviction when prosecutor Slaton tells defense counsel Binder: "You know, Al, this is the first case I ever tried where I didn't know the where, the when, the why or even the how." That's devastating. But neither attorney now recalls Slaton saying that. Let's see Mann's source--on the screen.
Major Walker is a composite character, but viewers will not know that. He appears closest to Lee Brown, then the controversial Atlanta commissioner for public safety, who is virtually absent from the story.
Camille Bell, the leader of a group formed by mothers of the victims, is depicted here as merely a super-heroine. In reality, she was a highly controversial figure who was frequently accused of being a publicity seeker. Viewers of "The Atlanta Child Murders" will not know that either.
"The Atlanta Child Murders" may be the docudrama that breaks the camel's back. Because it's on TV, it now becomes the account of record. Mann and his co-executive producer Gerald F. Rafshoon don't exonerate Williams. They merely pronounce him still innocent until proved guilty. That's fair enough. But if they're demanding our trust, then we have a right to demand their documentation.
On the screen.