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A Legacy Rejected

January 06, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On its surface, the new FX movie "Sins of the Father" examines the arrest and indictment of Ku Klux Klan member Bobby Frank Cherry for his participation in a notorious hate crime: the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four young African American girls.

But the film is not a straightforward crime drama. "It isn't about black against white," says the director, Robert Dornhelm ("Anne Frank"). "It is about the dark side in each of us. It is trying to show that we are all good and bad. It's about trying to suppress the bad and let the good come out and triumph over the bad."

Tom Sizemore stars in the movie, premiering Sunday on the cable network, as Tom Cherry, the eldest son of Bobby Frank Cherry (Richard Jenkins). Growing up in a large family in Birmingham, Tom Cherry witnessed his mother's constant physical abuse at the hands of his father. Tom always tried to win his father's love and acceptance but more often than not was beaten and brutalized by him. He would accompany his father to his Klan meetings and witnessed first-hand the hate crimes his father and friends committed against the city's African American community.

When Tom reads about the FBI's reopening of the bombing case in 1998, he goes to visit his father, now living in a trailer in Texas. But Bobby Frank Cherry hasn't changed; he is just as angry and hateful as ever. During the emotionally taxing visit, Tom slowly recalls memories of the events surrounding the bombing that he had suppressed for years. With the help of a friend (Ving Rhames), Tom finds the strength to testify against his father in front of a grand jury.

Bobby Frank Cherry was indicted in April 2000 but was sent to a state mental institution until a board of psychiatrists could determine whether he was mentally fit to stand trial. In early December, a psychologist said during a competency hearing that Cherry, now in his 70s, is indeed fit. The case is still pending.

Executive producer Robert Cooper, CEO of Artisan Pictures and former president of HBO Pictures, believes John Pielmeier's script to be one of the film's major strengths.

"I think there is a paradox," says Cooper, "that the more you are dealing with weighty issues, the more important it is that the writing be special and accessible, because otherwise it starts to feel like a lecture and then you fall asleep at the wheel. What I thought was pretty amazing about John Pielmeier is that he managed to tell a story in a way that was very compelling without being preaching."

What attracted him to the story, says Cooper, is the fact that "Sins of the Father" is about memory. "It is about a kid who grows up and looks back on his past and realizes he chose to forget who is father was. He puts the pieces of his memory together at the same time the nation decides whether it is time to remember what the [men who committed the crime] did 30 or 40 years ago."

Tom Cherry visited the set in Toronto, but prior to production Sizemore talked to him on the phone about 15 times over a six-week period. "He told me his father was Hitler without the army," says Sizemore.

Since testifying against his father, Sizemore relates, Tom Cherry has been completely ostracized by his family. "He's gotten hundreds of death threats on the Internet. He told me the Klan is still going on and it's even more dangerous now because they don't have capes, so you can't identify them."

Cherry and Sizemore got to be "pals," especially after Cherry learned that the actor ("Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down") is dating the former "Hollywood Madam," Heidi Fleiss. Sizemore recalls that Cherry told him that Fleiss was the "'most charismatic woman I have ever seen. Is there any way I can speak to her?' She ended up talking to him for about an hour. [Cherry and I] were getting along well, but that [conversation] broke a certain ice, and he seemingly opened up to me in a way he might not have."

"Sins of the Father" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on FX. The network has rated it TV-14-L-V (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with advisories for language and violence).

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