A gifted black honors student escapes Harlem only to find subtle, insidious bigotry at an elitist prep school in the tragic, potent true-life racial drama "Murder Without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story" (tonight at 9 on NBC).
Perry made headlines in 1985 when an undercover officer in Morningside Park fatally shot the youth only days after his graduation with honors from Phillips Exeter Academy. The young man's tumultuous odyssey at Exeter unfolds as a flashback between chilling depictions of his death in the park, which frame the drama like a pair of bookends.
This production, produced by Leonard Hill, Ron Gilbert and Michael Apted, follows in the strongest tradition of bristling social drama illuminating racism where you least expect it, from white liberals in the groves of academe. The story, in fact, dramatizes several of the same issues--such as interracial romance and loss of homeboy identity--that Spike Lee did in "Jungle Fever."
Director Kevin Hooks, writer Richard Wesley and the convincing Curtis McClarin as the embattled but affable Perry have also achieved something else: Wittingly or not, their work is an updated variation on Richard Wright's landmark 1940 novel "Native Son." Edmund Perry is much like that book's fated Bigger Thomas, and it's not coincidental that "Edmund Perry" scenarist Wesley wrote the 1986 movie script for "Native Son."
First of all, basic to all the relevancy, it is a terrific story that weds two different worlds. Perry's bright ghetto student, egged on by his demanding mother (Anna Maria Horsford) and a stern public school history teacher (Georg Stanford Brown), lands in the Gothic ivy campus of the prestigious Exeter like a wary lamb. Gradually, the snide racial slaughter, as only privileged whites can exact it, creates a simmering anger in the Harlem youth with tragic consequences.
The people at Exeter won't like this movie, and even Stanford University is unfairly drawn into the racial guck merely by the fact Perry was en route there before he was killed. The film's contention that any private campus he attended would have continued the quiet attacks is baloney. But that's a small flaw.
Like the half-black, half-white Joe Christmas in Faulkner's "Light in August," young Perry is a person without any home and culture. His return to his Harlem roots is disastrous. One of his old Harlem co-ed friends who lets drugs disintegrate her bright future (a brief, searing performance by A. J. Johnson that is typical of several sharp supporting roles) numbs the young man by calling him "an Oreo black."
Back at Exeter, he tries to join in. (There's a wonderful scene at a dance where Perry introduces black music to the all-white crowd.) But he can't find peace as he walks a tightrope between being "a smart blackhead" and "a credit to his race."
At one point, he lashes out to his one good white friend and roommate (a gentle, affecting performance by Christopher Daniel Barnes): "I can't even get a haircut in this town . . . everybody talks to me different--not racist, not straight, just different."