TV REVIEWS : ‘Violence’ Portrays American Tradition

When ‘60s black radical H. Rap Brown made his notorious and absolutely true statement--"Violence is as American as apple pie"--he was reflecting the country’s perverse loves for tradition, bloodletting and the tradition of bloodletting. Brown’s thought is never quoted by narrator Julian Bond in the HBO special “Violence: an American Tradition,” but it’s the foundation of a very disturbing hour.

Producer Peter Kunhardt and writer Philip B. Kunhardt III avoid the folly of digging for the roots of American violence; instead, with a grim cargo of explicitly violent archive imagery, they succinctly present the country’s bloody past, ranging from Puritan abuse of wives to the genocide of Native Americans. The Native American wars especially prompted an escalating cycle of revenge, producing a psychic toll on the nation that Ric Burns explored more incisively in his epic documentary “The Way West.”

The Kunhardts nevertheless draw some fascinating connections--between the Civil War’s license to kill and the post-war wave of outlaws led by the James brothers; between easy access to alcohol and ultra-liberal gun laws; between racial tensions, class divisions and laws tolerating shootouts, lynchings and mob rule.

If you think the late 20th Century is rough, the Kunhardts suggest, try the “good old days.” This hour’s greatest value is proof after proof that none of our current woes about violence is anywhere near new. There are 18th-Century child abuse cases to break your heart. Newsreels in the 1930s were already blurring the line between reporting and re-creating events. The print media covered the 1919 Omaha public torture and burning of Will Brown, a young black man, like a ballgame--which is pretty much how the white mob treated it.


None of the commentators (including Cornel West and Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith) says it, but “Violence” implies that the myth of some recent breakdown in American values is easily shattered by looking at our own history--which is finally an act of looking at ourselves.

* “Violence: An American Tradition” airs at 10 tonight on HBO. Repeats Saturday, Dec. 3, 7, 13 and 19.