Pivotal Moments in Civil Rights : Television: NBC's 'Murder in Mississippi' goes for the drama, but PBS' 'Eyes on the Prize II' documentary series captures the history.

NBC quotes Tom Hulce, the co-star of its "Murder in Mississippi" movie tonight, as saying the following:

"When I was growing up, I had no idea what was really going on in the South. It wasn't until I saw a remarkable documentary series called 'Eyes on the Prize' that I began to grasp the scope of the problem."

Math time: The World Almanac lists Hulce's birth year as 1953. If that's correct, Hulce is now 36 or 37, meaning that he was 33 or 34 when the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize" premiered on PBS in 1987, a rather advanced age to be finally comprehending "what was really going on in the South."

Is it possible that Hulce, although undoubtedly a bright fellow, is typical of his generation? If so, then a depressingly large segment of America has grown to adulthood with only narrow knowledge of the breadth of the struggle for black civil rights.

That would put enormous responsibility on a docudrama such as "Murder in Mississippi" (which airs at 9 p.m. on Channels 4, 36 and 39)--a heavy burden under which it buckles.

The subject here is the friendship of white Mickey Schwerner (Hulce) and black James Chaney (Blair Underwood), two of three young civil rights workers murdered in 1964 by Ku Klux Klansmen on a rural road between the Mississippi towns of Meridian and Philadelphia.

Ironically, "Murder in Mississippi" airs opposite an episode of "Eyes on the Prize II" on KCET Channel 28, one dealing in a profoundly moving way with the last days and assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. "Eyes on the Prize II" is Henry Hampton's important, eight-part sequel to his epic "Eyes on the Prize"--which Hulce is quoted by NBC as saying he and Underwood repeatedly watched to help prepare for their roles in "Murder in Mississippi."

If they're smart, they'll watch "Eyes on the Prize II" tonight instead of their own movie.

Unlike the PBS documentary, "Murder in Mississippi" is no prize. A dramatist's vision and actors playing roles anchored in melodrama fail to convey the fundamental truths available in "Eyes on the Prize II."

The 1988 theatrical movie "Mississippi Burning" amounted to historical hogwash in assigning J. Edgar Hoover's FBI a hero's role in solving a case patterned after the murder of Schwerner, Chaney and Andrew Goodman (the third slain civil rights worker). Hoover was no friend of the civil rights movement. "Mississippi Burning," however, was at least a dynamic movie, whereas "Murder in Mississippi" does not succeed even on a dramatic level.

A 24-year-old social worker from New York City, Schwerner was one of thousands of young Northerners who spent the summer of 1964 in the South helping blacks register to vote. We meet him tonight as he arrives in Mississippi with his wife, Rita (Jennifer Grey), and is almost immediately confronted by the local white population's hatred and bigotry.

Directed by Roger Young and written by Stanley Weiser, "Murder in Mississippi" does draw you inside this atmosphere of white rage--the ugliness of taunting throngs of rednecks is on target--and black fear and apathy. Bucking racism took courage. That much is on the screen.

But the Schwerner-Chaney relationship is so tritely handled that it plays like a formulaic buddy movie: Schwerner the white interloper is resented and mistrusted by Chaney the 21-year-old black Mississipian. They bicker and battle, only to unite ultimately in friendship as their culture clash gives way to mutual understanding.

Although the historical framework is correct, "Murder in Mississippi" is endlessly speculative when it comes to details of the comradeship between Schwerner and Chaney. They obviously knew each other well. As neither man lived long enough to write his memoirs, however, their numerous extended dialogues here are either the product of guesswork or hearsay, neither of which is a credible foundation for a movie that NBC claims is a "true story."

There is also some hokey-looking business about the fates of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman being sealed when a pay phone outside a jailhouse malfunctions, ending their last chance for getting help. The slaying sequence itself is suspensefully done, but the details of it--like much of "Murder in Mississippi"--should be viewed skeptically.

Much more illuminating--and affecting--is tonight's "Eyes on the Prize II," which finds King making an enemy of his former ally, President Lyndon B. Johnson, by criticizing the Vietnam War in 1967. King viewed as inseparable the issues of a war abroad--in which blacks and the poor were fighting and dying in disproportionate numbers--and poverty at home.

Via scratchy but fascinating film footage, we sit in on 1968 strategy sessions for the Poor People's March on Washington that the 39-year-old King would not live to see. We see the cracks in King's leadership widen, see a defeated Johnson's preoccupation with the Tet offensive, see Robert Kennedy campaign for the presidency, see a nation in transition and turmoil.

And then it's on to Memphis, where King battles more black resistance to nonviolence while marching and speaking out for the city's striking sanitation workers.

On April 4, King is in the Lorraine Motel with his colleagues. "Next thing we knew, a shot. . . ," recalls Andrew Young. King is down. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy continues: "I took his head into my hands and began to pat his cheek and said, 'This is Ralph. . . .' " An hour later, King is dead.

The funeral is captured on camera: The mourners (including Robert Kennedy, soon to die himself). The Negro spirituals. The tears. You watch it all and feel deeply sad.

Murder in Tennessee.

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