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TV REVIEW : 'Whitewash' Fails to Transcend Its Surface

August 16, 1994|CHARLES SOLOMON

Despite an impressive vocal cast that includes Ruby Dee and Linda Lavin, "Whitewash," an animated special on HBO dealing with the issue of racism among children, is more notable for its good intentions than its effectiveness.

Based on a real incident, "Whitewash" focuses on Helene Angel (Serena Henry), an African American fourth-grader who is attacked by a street gang on the way home from school. The gang members spray her face with white shoe polish to "make her white for a day."

The assault triggers a media frenzy, and the devastated Helene hides in her room until her classmates arrive to escort her back to school in a show of solidarity. Ntozake Shange's screenplay fails to explore Helene's feelings about the attack in any depth: All the viewer knows is that she hides in her room, remembering what happened.

Minorities remain underrepresented in animation, and producer-director Michael Sporn has worked to counter that problem, setting adaptations of the fairy tales "The Red Shoes" and "The Little Match Girl" in contemporary inner-city neighborhoods. But "Whitewash" sticks too close to live action and fails to exploit the power of animation to depict emotions symbolically. A child actress could have presented the pain the real little girl endured more effectively than these simple drawings.

"Whitewash" may provoke some valuable discussions between children and parents, but it's less interesting than it should be.

* "Whitewash" airs at 7:30 tonight on HBO.

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