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Scholastic's HBO Debut Presents a Sketchy 'Picture of Freedom'

Television Review

March 17, 1999|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "Dear America" Scholastic book series, created by Jean Feiwel and written by various authors of stature, is a terrific melding of education (each revolves around a piece of American history), inspiration and entertainment (a heroic young girl observes life around her and participates in historic events).

Scholastic's TV series, beginning today on HBO, is a less balanced mix, judging by the debut episode, "A Picture of Freedom." Presented with little sense of time passing and with sketchily observed characters, it's a spoon-fed version of Patricia C. McKissack's fictionalized diary of 12-year-old Clotee Henley, a slave in 1859 Virginia, who becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Sweet-faced sprite Shadia Simmons offers a game performance as Clotee, who has surreptitiously done the forbidden--learned to read and to cherish the word "freedom"--as she fans the young son of her harsh white owner (Richard Sali) during his lessons with a tutor (Mark Ellis).

The tutor knows her secret, and Clotee soon learns his: He is an abolitionist, helping slaves to freedom. When a friend of Clotee's is cruelly whipped and told he'll be sold away from his sweetheart, the tutor's effort to help leads to his exposure, and Clotee pledges to take his place, postponing her own chance at freedom.

In the book, readers closely identify with Clotee as author McKissack vividly draws them into the young heroine's life, time and place; the half-hour teleplay by Ron Stacker Thompson and Ashley Tyler, directed by Helaine Head, is too unlayered and rushed to capture that intimacy.

* "Dear America: A Picture of Freedom," HBO, tonight at 7:30. (Repeats Friday, noon; Monday, 3 p.m.; March 27, 11:30 a.m.; March 30, 6:30 a.m.; April 4, 5 p.m.) The network has rated it TV-Y7 (suitable for children older than 7).

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