CNN lets marketing supersede journalism in the first installment of its multifaceted initiative “Black in America,” which seeks to capitalize on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder to again ventilate theories on who other than convicted gunman James Earl Ray might have been responsible for the civil rights leader’s death. The second and third promised documentaries will explore contemporary issues pertaining to African-Americans, and given the larger theme, this represents a peculiar place to begin: Instead of serving as a prologue to the here and now, the opener feels more like “48 Hours Mysteries.”
On its face, the four-month project sounds admirable — slated as it is to include weekly reports, an online component and two subsequent docs, “The Black Man” and “The Black Woman & Family,” to air in July.
Yet the question of where the black experience stands 40 years after King’s death receives at best minimal attention in this initial salvo, which rather re-examines the circumstances surrounding his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and a conspiracy theory as to who might have been responsible for it.
The belief that Ray either was framed or didn’t act alone has gained traction among those interested in the case — including King’s family — and correspondent Soledad O’Brien and her team do a thorough job of re-reporting those events. That includes finding an impressive roster of surviving witnesses and extensive interviews with King aides Andrew Young and Congressman John Lewis, who breaks into tears discussing the King and Robert F. Kennedy shootings within months of each other.
Ultimately, though, O’Brien sheds relatively little new light on the matter. Moreover, the discussion pays scant attention to King’s larger legacy, instead focusing on the criminal investigation, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s well-known hostility toward him and whether a shadowy figure known as “Raoul” played a role in the killing or was a convenient figment of Ray’s imagination. The general presentation, too, overplays such elements as the musical score and actors reading from Ray’s diary or FBI files.
CNN officials have dubbed the total effort “comprehensive and ambitious,” and the attempt to provide context about the state of African-Americans circa 2008 seems well timed in light of Barack Obama’s candidacy as well as his provocative address on race. Moreover, the channel has exhibited a laudable commitment to serious documentaries such as “God’s Warriors” when other news outlets mostly shun the genre, leaving HBO to dominate the field. (There are several projects devoted to the King anniversary in April, including the History Channel’s “King” and an MSNBC live discussion.)
Based on the description, a fair assessment of “Black in America” will have to wait, but in terms of first impressions, “Eyewitness to Murder” represents a missed opportunity. The only thing it proves conclusively, in fact, is that when it comes to TV news, “ambitious” and “smart” don’t always go hand in hand.