Some unsubtle writing and over-the-top moments don't hobble the overall potency of "Blind Faith," a solid drama limning racism and homophobia as played out in a late-1950s murder trial. Given current B.O. indifference toward most social-justice dramas sans major star pull, this Showtime presentation will probably fare best as a prestige tube item.

Some unsubtle writing and over-the-top moments don’t hobble the overall potency of “Blind Faith,” a solid drama limning racism and homophobia as played out in a late-1950s murder trial. Given current B.O. indifference toward most social-justice dramas sans major star pull, this Showtime presentation will probably fare best as a prestige tube item. (Barring theatrical pickup, it’s tentatively skedded for network premiere Feb. 1.)

Brief prelude has now-aged lawyer John Williams (Courtney B. Vance) watching in dismay as the white perpetrators in Yusef Hawkins’ notorious 1989 Bensonhurst slaying get wrist-slap punishment. “But there was a time when it was much worse,” he voiceovers, spurring pic’s long central flashback.

In 1957, John was struggling to maintain his new legal practice, still living with elder cop sibling Charles (Charles S. Dutton) and the latter’s family in Bronx comfort. Charles rules the household with an iron hand — as if keeping a wife (Lonette McKee) and three children required the same discipline expected of him as the NYPD’s hopeful first African-American sergeant. His relationship is especially uneasy with his oldest son, Charlie (Garland Whitt), a doelike, sensitive soul who wants to take art classes; Dad has him slotted for the police exam instead.

Thus it seems beyond belief when the family gets a precinct call informing that Charlie is under arrest for murdering a white boy. John suspects cops beat a signed confession out of Junior; yet the lad confirms he’d tried to rob and then strangled to death a much larger Irish-American youth who’d been roaming the park with six mates.

If the authorities are quite happily convinced, John stays otherwise, sure that Charlie is hiding some deeper truth. He’s soon forced to take the case himself — no better (i.e., white) attorney will adopt such an “unpopular” defense. John runs into one dead end after another trying to dig up witnesses (save one elderly black woman) and evidence.

The police, the courts, popular opinion are clearly ready to railroad Charles Jr. into the electric chair. At last, one of script’s less credible turns has a hushed-up police file accidentally laid in John’s hands — one that leads to the solution of the case.

Frank Military’s generally taut screenplay has some stretches of hackneyed dialogue, and Spike Lee cinematographer turned director Ernest Dickerson (“Juice,” “Bulletproof”) lets the emotions get out of hand a few times toward the end, particularly when John and Eddie (the youngest, estranged Williams sibling, played by Kadeem Hardison) beg an impassible Charles to accept an uncomfortable truth one last time. A jazz-club sequence feels poorly placed at the 11th hour, and the story’s epilogue perhaps overreaches — albeit in noble, bold fashion — to encompass civil rights movements since the time of the story.

Nevertheless, “Blind Faith” generally has narrative punch and passion to spare. Though shot in Toronto, pic manages period flavor nicely via solid production design and soft-edged, pastel lensing. Vance anchors the action, alternating convincing courtroom savvy with a desperate, bittersweet familial loyalty.

Dutton has a harder time getting inside Charles — a father so set in his homophobia and internalized racism that he seems willing to sacrifice a son rather than risk embarrassment, until it’s too late. The character’s rigidity never quite convinces, particularly with a spouse as warm as McKee on hand. Hardison, Whitt and Karen Glave (as John’s rather stock devoted secretary) ably lead the supporting scroll.

Tech package is first-class, though there’s nothing going on here stylistically that would suffer in small-screen translation.

Blind Faith

Production

A Showtime presentation of a Neufeld/Rehme production. Produced by Nick Grillo. Executive producers, Mace Neufeld, Robert Rehme. Co-executive producer, Steven Hewitt. Directed by Ernest Dickerson. Screenplay, Frank Military.

Crew

Camera (color), Rodney Charters; editor, Stephen Lovejoy; music, Ron Carter; production design, Jeff Ginn; art direction, Brandt Gordon; costumes, Martha Mann; makeup, Lynda McCormack, Vonda Morris; hairstyles, Veronica Ciandre; associate producer, Romi Lassally; line producer, Armand Leo; casting, Beth Klein, Alysa Wishingrad, Ross Clydesdale. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 1998. Running time: 122 MIN.

With

Charles Williams - Charles S. Dutton John Williams - Courtney B. Vance Eddie Williams - Kadeem Hardison Carol Williams - Lonette McKee Charles Williams Jr. - Garland Whitt Anna Huggins - Karen Glave Timothy - Jeff Clarke Rose - Nancy Herard Philip - Jim Jones Frank - Alex Karzis Frank Minor - Dan Lett Judge Aker - Aron Tager Mrs. Barry - Birdie M. Hale
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