Black History Month remains big

Black History Month starts today, bringing a fresh cascade of shows. Here's the story and list I sent to papers:



Each February, two strong forces –
PBS and cable – propel Black History Month.

This year's shows range from the upbeat
and uptempo – a Cab Calloway profile (Feb. 27), a vibrant
production of the Tony-winning musical “Memphis” (Feb. 24) – to
the dead-serious.

One upcoming PBS special (Feb. 13)
views methods that virtually revived the slavery early in the 20th
century. “I learned about all of the cruelty and the abuse that was
handed out by my family,” said Susan Tuggle Burnore, whose
great-grandfather was convicted of killing 11 blacks. “It was

Another (Feb. 9) is a “Black Power
Mixtape” from an angry era. Angela Davis – in prison, charged
with aiding a 1970 murder – is shown passionately disputing that
black-power people are violent.

Davis was acquitted and is 68, a
retired University of California, Santa Clara professor. “Those of
us who were active … were often represented as advocates of
violence,” she said. She argues now that “the state had the
monopoly on violence …. I would love to inhabit a world without

Such hours, sprinkled with cheerier
moments, fill February – even as people argue about whether there
should be a Black History Month.

Ironically, one of PBS' specials (Feb.
16) argues against Black History Month. “It's a film about trying
to see African-American history outside of the box of February,”
said filmmaker Shukree Tilghman.

Other people share some of his doubts.
“Are we ghettoizing the films by just giving them this one month?”
asked “Independent Lens” producer Lois Vossen, who has scheduled
three black-history films (including Tilghman's) for February.

Adds Talib Kweli, a “Mixtape”
narrator: “I remember being a little kid and McDonald's co-opted
Black History Month in a major way.”

Davis reflects some Black History Month
concerns. “There's a tendency to marginalize speakers and
activities in that frame.”

Still, society too often shed history.
Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month, Davis said,
are“preserving a way to encourage a collective meditation on the
history of struggle for freedom.”

That's how Sharon La Cruise sees it.
Her film (Feb. 2) basically starts the month for PBS. “I'm glad
there is a time ... focused on the history; I'm not sure we're
focused on any history in our country.”

Her film profiles Daisy Bates, who had
a powerful impact on the civil-rights movement in Little Rock, Ark.,
then was often overlooked … until Black History Month, 2012.

Here's a sampling:

PBS. (These are the national dates, but check local listings; on WKAR in East Lansing, for instance, each "Independent Len" is delayed until 11 p.m. the following Tuesday.)

– “Independent Lens” (10 p.m.
Thursdays): “Daisy Bates” profiles a civil rights leader in 1950s
Little Rock, Feb. 2; “The Back Power Mixtape 1968-1975” uses a
Swedish news team's footage of U.S. racial issues, Feb. 9; “More
Than a Month” questions having a Black History Month, Feb.16.

– “Underground Railroad: The
William Still Story”(10 p.m. Feb.6) views the role of a free black

– “American Experience: Freedom
Riders” (8-10 p.m., Feb. 7) reruns an acclaimed documentary.

– “Slavery By Another Name”
(9-10:30 p.m. Feb.13) views Southern practices that revived slavery
by imprisoning blacks and then renting them to farmers.

– “Frontline: The Interrupters”
(9-10:30 p.m., Feb.14) views a Chicago program that has former gang
members heading off youth violence.

– “Great Performances: Memphis”
(9-11:30 p.m., Feb. 24) is the zestful, Tony-winning musical.

– “American Masters: Cab Calloway:
Sketches” (10-11 p.m. Feb. 27) profiles the singer/band leader.


Yes, the channel is a piece of black
history itself. Some key specials this month include:

– “The Express” (2008, 8 p.m.
Feb. 4) portrays Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner.

– “Soul Mates: Dr. Maya Angelou and
Common” (11 a.m., Feb. 12) has two poets, one using hip hop.

– “BET Honors” (9 p.m. Feb. 13)
includes special awards for Angelou, the Tuskegee airmen, Stevie
Wonder, Spike Lee, Mariah Carey and coach Beverly Kearney.

– “Ali” (2001, 8 p.m., Feb. 24)
has Will Smith playing the champ.


Documentary movies air at 8:30 p.m.

– “Brooklyn Boheme” (Feb. 2)
views the rise of an artistic community in the 1980s.

– “On the Shoulders of Giants”
(Feb. 9) profiles the Harlem Renaissance, the first all-black
professional basketball team to win a national championship.

– “Heart of Stone” (Feb. 16)
views a crusading New Jersey principal.

Smithsonian Channel

– “MLK: The Assassination Tapes”
(9 p.m. Feb. 12) was assembled from footage that University of
Memphis professors created to document the garbage-workers strike
that drew King to the city.

– Two reruns air at 9 p.m. Saturdays,
rerunning at 8 p.m. Thursdays. “Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4”
(Feb. 4) profiles the lunch-counter sit-ins; “Black Wings” (Feb.
11) has aviation pioneers.


Other shows are scattered around; a few
key ones include:

– “Men of Honor”(2000, 8 and 11
p.m. Feb.6, FX) has Cuba Gooding as the Navy's first black diver.

– “The Loving Story” (9-10:30
p.m. Feb. 14, HBO) portrays the husband and wife who were arrested in
1958, under Virginia's ban of inter-racial marriages. They eventually
won in the Supreme Court.

– Image Awards (8-10 p.m. Feb. 17,
NBC) annually assembles movie, TV and music stars and more.

– “Glory” (1989, 8-10:30 p.m.
Feb. 17), portrays the Army's first black regiment, in the Civil War.



This comedy duo is REALLY good

Every now and then, a really good comedy show arrives. One of the best -- "Key & Peele" -- debuts Tuesday (Jan. 31) and reruns often. Here's the story I sent to papers:


When listing Barack Obama's
accomplishments, this may not be near the top.

“Obama was the best thing for black
nerds everywhere,” Jordan Peele said.

Keegan-Michael Key – his colleague in
Comedy Central's new “Key & Peele” – agreed. Now, he said,
“it's OK for black people to walk down the street saying, 'Yeah,
Star Trek!'”

These two actor-comedians point to lots
of other inspirations, from “Mr. Show” to Monty Python, but one
stands out” “(Dave) Chapelle was a revelation to us,” Key said.

Now they're on Chapelle's old network,
doing what he did: They talk to a nightclub-type audience,
introducing stylish little films. “There's a cinematic quality to
the sketches,” Key said.

He and Peele have much in common, from
ethnic roots (black father, white mother) to their five years on
“MADtv.” Both have been on “Reno 911,” Chocolate News,”
“Children's Hospital” and “Al TV.”

Key is the taller one
(6-foot-2-and-a-half), the older one (40), the married one. He's the
Midwesterner who grew up in suburban Detroit and thrived in Chicago.
He's also the one with the theater degrees and awards. “Keegan is
an actor's actor,” said Peele, 32.

Peele is a NewYorker who is, among
other things, a master impersonator. Some sources say he auditioned
to play Obama on “Saturday Night Live,” but lost to Fred Armisen;
actually, Peele said, he was offered the job, but couldn't take it
because of another commitment.

A slow period followed, with
situation-comedy roles. Key was a regular (as Curtis) in CBS' “Gary
Unmarried”; Peele was in “The Station,” a Ben Stiller
production that Fox nixed.

“We were both free at the same time,”
Key said. “Our manager (asked): 'You guys want to work together?'”

Their highlight reel attracted Kent
Alterman, Comedy Central's programming chief. He says their chemistry
goes beyond similiarities. “It's also about their differences;
they're wired very differently.”

Peele's mother, an administrative
assistant, raised him alone in what he calls “the best
neighborhood” to grow up in, on New York's Upper West Side. It was
an artistic area, where Lady Gaga was also growing up; Peele says he
was “deceptively quiet; I was the artistic kid in the corner.”

Key was none of that. “I was a hyper,
hot mess,” he said.

His adoptive parents (bi-racial, like
his birth parents) gave him space. They “were social workers,”
Key said, “and all of their friends were clinical psychologists.
(It was,) 'Let him express himself.'”

He grew up in Southfield, was shy in
school for a while, then started auditioning for shows at Shrine
Catholic High School in Royal Oak. Then came the ssuccesses: He
graduated from Detroit University and added a Master of Fine Arts
from Penn State. In 1996, he co-founded Planet Ant, a comedy theater
in Hamtramck. He joined Chicago's Second City comedy troupe; in 2002
and in 2003, the Jefferson awards (Chicago's top theater prize) named
him best actor in a revue.

Next came “MADtv,” his friendship
with Peele, and their show. With a team of writers, they had about 10
weeks to write sketches and then a frantic 23 days to film all eight

This started with 260 sketch ideas, Key
said; 51 will be squeezed into this first, eight-week season.

Alterman points to one notion: “Jordan
does an incredible Obama and Keegan is his anger translator.”

A “black nerd,” it seems, can
always use some verbal back-up.

– “Key & Peele,” 10:30 p.m.
Tuesdays, Comedy Central; debuts Jan.31, rerunning at 12:30 and 3a.m.

– Opener reruns often in the next
week, including Thursday at 10:30 p.m.; Friday at 9 p.m. and 12:30
a.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m., 8 p.m. and midnight; Feb. 7 at 8 p.m.


Concussions bring a chilling counterpoint to football fun

This is a huge weekend for TV. If you scan the recent blogs here, you'll see stories on Tony Bennett (Friday), a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie (Sunday) and Jennifer Granholm's new talk show (Monday).

There's one more story, however: Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a terrific report (Sunday, then rerunning the following Saturday) on football concussions. I'll put the story here in a moment, but first two recollections from my childhood in Clintonville, Wis.:

1) Freshman football: Mike Harris, the New London fullback, has the ball; I'm the middle linebacker, ready to tackle him. Mike, alas, was short and stocky; I was neither, making it difficult to get his waist. As we each ran full-speed, we collided head-on. The lights went out for a moment; I heard Gib Johnson, a math teacher, on the sidelines, saying "Do it again, Mike."

1a) I didn't do it again. They promptly ran the same play; I jumped on Mike's back and gradually wrestled him down.

1b) Gib Johnson, a former military man, later became Clintonville's mayor and tried, unsuccessfully, to bring the state's "superprison" to our town. I'm quite sure there were other times when I didn't follow his instructions.

2) In 4th grade, we were playing run-through. I collided head-on with my friend Mickey Nelson. Then the bell rang and we all ran inside. After a while, the teacher inquired: "Where's Mickey?" He was just out there playing with us a minute ago, we said. She went out to look and found him still lying on the ground.

In both cases, everyone survived and went on to productive lives. (Well, semi-productive; I write about television.) What we didn't realize was that either of those hits could have led to permanent damage, even death. It's only been in recent years that people havetake concussions seriously. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Dr. Sanjay Gupta grew up in a football
world of “The Big House,” the big games, the big hits.

People found elegance in young men
colliding head-on. “You'd hear phrases like 'getting his bell
rung,'” Gupta said. “Now people talk about concussions or what
they are – brain injuries.”

That's emphasized in his CNN special,
“Big Hits, Broken Dreams.”

Certainly, people have realized
concussions can be fierce. There have been more specifics lately,
however, partly because of a research “brain bank” with the
remains of pro football players and others.

“I look at a lot of brains in my
work, but I had never seen anything like this,” said Gupta, a
neuro-surgeon who visited the bank. “You would see a 17-year-old
with damage we associate with old age.”

So he focused on early concussions, in
high school football. That brought him to Greenville, N.C., which
Sports Illustrated once dubbed “Sports Town, USA.”

That's a setting Gupta can understand.
He's a first-generation American native who's from an academic family
– both parents were engineers for Ford – but he's always been
near football fervor.

He grew up in cities – Dearborn,
Livonia and Novi – within a half-hour of the University of
Michigan, where the stadium (nicknamed “The Big House”) has had
football attendance topping 114,000. He went to college and medical
school at U-M and has flown back for games.

“I'm still a big football fan,”
Gupta said. “I still love it.”

That's similar to the mood in
Greenville, where players' instincts are to shake it off and resume
action. “These kids want to play …. They want to get back in.”

In the past, they weren't aware of
secondary concussions: The brain works at healing itself from a blow;
a second blow, during that time, can have a harsher effect.

Jaquan Waller, a star running back,
took a head-on hit during practice in 2008. He was taken off the
field, but was back the next day, seeming upbeat.

“Everybody just thought he just got
his bell rung,” Zach Rogers, a friend and teammate, says in the
special. “Nothing out of normal. That's just how you play; you play

Two days after that blow, he was in a
game. After what seemed like an ordinary hit, he was carried off the
field. He was essentially dead by the time he got to the hospital,
officially dead the next morning.

Another North Carolina teen died from a
football injury that year and Gupta met Greenville players who have
had persistent headaches. He also found the flip side: Since Waller's
death, Greenville has intensely fought against concussions; steps
include talks to players, plus:

– Having an athletic trainer at
practices and a doctor on sidelines for games. The majority of
schools still don't have trainers at practice, Gupta said, but 35
states now have some sort of requirement,

– Testing players before the season.
To return after a concussion, they have to match that result.

– Paying attention to the cumulative
effects. A pro player, Gupta said, might absorb 650,000 blows before
retirement. Some of that can be changed by reducing full-contact

– “Big Hits, Broken Dreams,” on
CNN under the “Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports” banner

– 8 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 29), repeating
at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

– Repeats at the same times the next
Saturday, Feb. 4



"Hall of Fame" is back and cheery

At times, the big networks forget about TV movies and ignore "Hallmark Hall of Fame," which does those movies beautifully. Still, those films persist; on Sunday, ABC airs this season's second "Hall of Fame," a feel-good film  called "A Smile as Big as the Moon." Here's the story I sent to papers:


For a moment, John Corbett wasn't sure
about this role.

In ABC's “A Smile as Big as the
Moon,” he was supposed to play Mike Kersjes, a special-ed teacher
who was also a football coach. That's where the problem came.

“I didn't really like my high school
football coach,” Corbett said. “I thought of coaches as goons.”

All of that dissolved when he met
Kersjes. “He's gregarious,” said Corbett, who shares that trait.
“He likes a cocktail; he likes to laugh. He kind of looks like Dr.

And he has audacity, pushing for the
elite U.S. Space Camp to accept his class. “This was in 1988,”
Corbett said. “The camp was only six years old then and didn't have
any special-ed programs.”

Taking the role in this “Hallmark
Hall of Fame”film was be a huge challenge for Corbett, who:

– Had never seen Space Camp. He does
remember watching the moon landing when he was 8; much later, he met
Buzz Aldrin, who described the last-minute crisis of being unable to
find a landing site.

– Knew nothing about special-ed. “I'd
never even met a kid with Down syndrome.”

Now “Smile” put him with several
Down-syndrome actors, including Peter ten Brink, who plays Ben.

“Some of the best conversations in my
life were with Peter …. He tells great jokes, he loves every
country singer,” Corbett said. “He's learning the guitar; he
calls Taylor Swift on the phone sometimes.”

For Corbett, who is working on his
second country album, these are admirable traits. He and ten Brink
worked together, doing large chunks of the film at the real Space
Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

The story – taking a class from
Forest Hills Northern High (in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Mich.) to
Alabama – seems like a stretch. Then again, many parts of Corbett's
own life are just as unlikely.

Flash back, for instance, to when he
was a teen-ager, in an apartment with his mother in Wheeling, W.Va.
He was a good athlete – a basketball center (6-foot-5, 200 pounds),
a high-jumper and, despite disliking the coach, a football tight end.
He was also a poor student (attention deficit problems) with no
long-range plans. And at 18, he remembers staring in awe at the
movie“10” and Bo Derek.

“I'd never seen anyone like that
before,” Corbett recalled. “I remember thinking, 'I wish I had a
girlfriend as pretty as that.”

Now he does. Corbett, 50, and Derek,
55, have been together for 10 years. They live amid Northern
California beauty, while he races off to acting jobs.

There were a lot of things in between,
of course. There was Corbett traveling to California on a beanbag
chair in the back of his friend's pick-up truck …. Showing up there
on the doorstep of his father, whom he'd only met a few times ….
Getting a factory job until he hurt his back, and then going to
community college, where he found an acting class … And getting a
huge break.

“I got lucky when I got 'Northern
Exposure,'” Corbett said. It was then a low-budget summer show and
he was an unknown, but it lasted five seasons, with Corbett as Chris
the disc jockey.

Other series kept piling up –
“Lucky,” “The Visitor,” “United States of Tara,”
boyfriend duty in “Sex and the City” and in the movie “My Big
Fat Greek Wedding.”

Corbett even has a sharp change-up in
“Parenthood,” playing an ex-husband who's an alcoholic
rock-and-roller. “I can do the nice guy roles,” he said, “but
it's nice to do something different.”

Still, the nice-guy stuff beckons,
including two “Hall of Fame” films. In “November Christmas,”
he was an earnest dad; now he's a coach who isn't even remotely a

– “A Smile as Big as the Moon,”
9-11 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 29), ABC

– Then on the Hallmark Channel – 8
and 10 p.m. Feb. 4, 2 p.m. Feb. 5



Current gets ... well, more current

After scrambling for six-and-a-half years, the Current cable channel is finally getting some attention.

That started last June when Keith Olbermann moved his talk show there; now Jennifer Granholm -- who had two terms as Michigan's governor -- gets the spot after him, beginning Monday (Jan. 30). Here's the story I sent to papers:


Jennifer Granholm couldn't be blamed
for fidgeting, a few hours before the State of the Union address.

“I wish I was on the air now,” she

She just missed that. “The War Room
With Jennifer Granholm” starts Monday (Jan. 30), a key step in the
makeover of the Current TV cable channel.

“When we launched 'Countdown with
Keith Olberman,' we saw the opportunity to really speak in a
politically direct manner,” said Al Gore, the channel's co-founder.

So now he has the full line-up – Cenk
Uygur at 7 p.m. ET, Olbermann at 8, Granholm, Michigan's former
two-term governor, at 9, with all three then repeating. Its debut
comes as the election year heats up; still, Granholm would have liked
to be on the air six days earlier, for the State of the Union.

For one thing, she knew President Obama
would point to Bryan Ritterby, a laid-off factory worker who landed a
new job (working on wind-turbine parts) after re-training at Grand
Rapids (Mich.) Community College. “That was our program, part of
'No Worker Left Behind,'” Granholm said.

For another, there's the comparison to
her own State of the State address in 2006. Like Obama this year, she
was up for re-election; both:

– Had low approval ratings. His was
46 percent, hers was 40.

– Faced competition from a wealthy
businessman – Mitt Romney and Dick DeVoss.

– Were stymied by a stagnant economy.
“We had a higher unemployment rate,” Granholm said.

The result? She drew 56 per cent of the
votes. “There are such enormous parallels,” she said, a fact that
she mentioned to Obama and his people. “I was saying they should
get a copy of my book.”

Or they could watch her show. “We're
going to do a studio that is a mock-up of a campaign-office war room,
without the pizza boxes,” Granholm said.

The first half or so of each hour will
deal with politics and elections; the rest with policy. Granholm sees
Michigan – wracked first by the recession – as key; “we're like
a lab for the rest of the country.”

Current started six years ago, as a
patchwork of pieces from viewers. It drew praise and awards for its
Vanguard documentary unit, but was unnoticed by most viewers,
including Granholm.

Then Olbermann moved there from MSNBC
last June. “I thought, 'That's an interesting thing? Why Current?
What's going on there?'” Granholm recalls.

Gore phoned, suggesting she do a show
to follow Olbermann. “That was completely out of the blue.”

Granholm and her husband, Dan Mulhern,
had already settled into the faculty at the University of California,
Berkeley. “He was very positive that I should take this,” she
said. “He said, 'Those are the shows you watch anyway. You're
always hogging the TV.'”

So “War Room” was set up, with a
studio in San Francisco. Contributors will include Gavin Newsom, Van
Jones, Laura Tyson, Maria Echeveste and Celinda Lake.

Those names are familiar on the left;
Current doesn't hide its leanings. “When Keith (Olbermann) turned
'Countdown' into a progressive show, there was a great thirst in the
country,” Uygur said.

This brings Granholm full-circle, back
into show business. Born in Canada and raised in the San Francisco
area, she moved to Los Angeles at 19 to be an actress; the closest
she came was being a Universal Studios tour guide, warning tram
riders of pseudo-dangers; “it was 'Jaws' back then.”

Then she took an alternate route –
Berkeley (majoring in French and political science) … Harvard Law
School (where she met Mulhern) … moving to his home state, where
she eventually became Michigan's attorney general and then its

Now, 33 years later, she's back in show
business – warning about political sharks instead of “Jaws.”

– “War Room With Jennifer
Granholm,” begins Monday (Jan. 30)

– 9 p.m. ET weekdays at Current TV,
rerunning at midnight

– Other reruns during the day; on
Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, those will be at 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4


– Guests on the opener will be Robert
Gibbs, former presidential press secretary, now an advisor to the
Obama campaign, and Elizabeth Warren (D, Mass.), a U.S. Senate
candidate and former chairman of the congressional committee on the
Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).