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TV REVIEW

Racial Justice on Cable: 1 Fine Show and 1 Poor Job

September 06, 1997|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

America is, to borrow a line from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," "the melting pot where nothing melted."

And the pot, as a result, keeps boiling over.

The Howard Beach, Crown Heights, Rodney King and O.J. incidents--to name just a few--have forced Americans to look hard at the roiling tensions between races and cultures and to seriously ponder such issues as justice, equality and just getting along. Cable television contributes to the debate this weekend with HBO's "First-Time Felon" at 9 tonight and Showtime's "Color of Justice" at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Of these, the stimulatingly original, unnervingly environmental HBO movie is far better than the sloppily formulaic and, often, outright stupid Showtime project, even though the latter sports such big names as F. Murray Abraham, Judd Hirsch, Gregory Hines and Bruce Davison.

Based on a true story, "First-Time Felon" walks the mean streets of Chicago's West Side with Greg Yance (Omar Epps), a 23-year-old African American who's a "big dog" gang member and drug dealer. Busted for dealing, he has the option of five years in a prison ruled by a rival gang or a 120-day boot camp.

He opts for the boot camp, where the superintendent (William Forsythe) cautions: "It is not our job to straighten you out. It is your job. It is your responsibility."

Yance begins to straighten out when the inmates are enlisted to help sandbag the small town of Niota, Ill., during the Mississippi River's destructive flooding in 1993. Most movies would end here, with Yance a hero among the grateful locals. But not "First-Time Felon," which is written by Daniel Therriault and directed by former "Roc" star Charles S. Dutton in his first project behind the lens.

The sandbagging section passes almost too quickly, and--bam!--Yance finds himself back home, where his old pals try to lure him back to his former life. He wants to turn things around, yet even though he puts on a dress shirt and tie and dutifully hunts for work, he is rejected for even the lowliest jobs, presumably because of his color and his criminal record.

These scenes are slowly, almost agonizingly paced, and as a result, viewers have the sensation of walking a mile in his shoes, of being trapped in a bleak world in which every day is a humiliation.

As Yance, Epps progresses from dead-eyed youth to radiant young adult and back again. The supporting cast is sharp, too--particularly Delroy Lindo as a well-intentioned but overly zealous camp guard. (In another break from formula, even the good guys are flawed.)

*

"Color of Justice," on the other hand, clings to formula. You'll find every stereotype imaginable in this story of four African American teens who get stranded in the wrong part of New York City and kill a woman while commandeering her car to get back home.

There are the heartless young killer (Eugene Byrd), the conscience-stirred accomplice (Dule Hill), the '60s-era liberal who defends them (Hirsch), the opportunistic district attorney (Abraham), the equally opportunistic minister (Hines), the victim's inwardly seething husband (Davison) and . . . well, you get the sorry picture.

Writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd's script--which in many of its particulars is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities"--glances on issues raised in the Rev. Al Sharpton's campaigns as well as by the Rodney King and O.J. episodes. Above all, it decries media sensationalism and playing of the race card, yet it is guilty of these very things.

Some fine actors--some of whom merely phone in their performances and others of whom go down trying--are tainted by their association with it.

*

"First-Time Felon" debuts at 9 tonight on HBO. It has been rated TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17). "Color of Justice" debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime. It has been rated TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14).

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