“Children of the Dust” is an absorbing Western that’s propelled by its multiracial dynamics and refreshing setting: the great Land Rush of the Oklahoma Territory in the 1880s. The mini, toplining Sydney Poitier as a half-black, half-Cherokee gunslinger, is sufficiently free of flab to indeed require four hours to spin its sprawling, brawling story.
Helmed by David Greene and adapted by co-exec producer Joyce Eliason from a novel by Clancy Carlile, the mini features principals who are black, Indian and white, and the dramatic payoff is romance, racism and revenge.
“Dust” is set against sweeping fields and deep blue skies that frequently dwarf the human silhouettes struggling to survive; and the territory (Alberta, Canada) is beautifully lensed by Canadian cameraman Ron Orieux.
The principal characters include a Cheyenne youth (Billy Wirth) raised as a Caucasian by a white family, the girl with whom he was raised and who later becomes his tortured love (Joanna Going), and her decent, well-meaning Indian Agent father (Michael Moriarty) ensnared in the swirl of racial tensions.
Not least among the co-stars is Gypsy Smith’s love (Regina Taylor), a black teacher from Tennessee. Taylor’s tearful, tragic love scenes with Poitier are unquestionably the production’s strongest moments, thanks to their perfs.
A large number of well-known names take surprisingly minuscule roles, which lends unexpected depth and flavor. Among them are Farrah Fawcett, playing a frail East Coast wife driven to suicide by the bleak and rough terrain; Grace Zabriskie as an Annie Oakley type who joins a gang of outlaws; and Robert Guillaume, who organizes the former slaves’ trek to Oklahoma.
As a miniseries, “Dust” ranks up there with “Lonesome Dove.”