As painful as it is to discourage a cable-news network from tackling substantive longform documentary, the second and third parts of CNN’s “Black in America” are as muddled as the first — a micro look at individual African-Americans that contributes sparingly to the macro picture. Arbitrarily divided into “Black Women and Family” and “Black Men,” Soledad O’Brien’s reporting is at best skin-deep. At four hours (plus a previous two on the King assassination), this project is ultimately about as vanilla as documentaries get.
There are, to be sure, arresting factoids buried within the two nights: the nearly 1 million black men in prison, incarcerated at six times the rate of whites; the role of the war on drugs in perpetuating the black underclass; the media’s part in fostering images of African-Americans in handcuffs; the high dropout rate among black students; single-parent families; and the troubling racial disparity in life expectancy, including the AIDS crisis within the black community.
In spraying its lens so wide, though, the docu sorely lacks consistent depth or insight. O’Brien interviews a cross-section of African-Americans, but her questions don’t probe much beyond allowing a range of individuals — from ordinary folks to such familiar faces as comics D.L. Hughley and Whoopi Goldberg and filmmaker Spike Lee — to vent their gripes and occasionally ruminate about their accomplishments.
Using Little Rock, Ark., as a vague touchstone, O’Brien approaches the topic from various angles but never settles on a predominant theme. Nor does the reporting make the seemingly obvious leap of contemplating what Barack Obama’s candidacy may say about the here and now, beyond a fleeting reference to how the Democratic contender characterizes his mixed-race ancestry.
At times, “Black in America” seems like a Nickelodeon special for kids who have never met a black person — aimed at an audience completely naive about the African-American experience. As a consequence, the four hours crawl by, drizzling out a hodge-podge of explanations and theories but failing to enhance understanding for either blacks or outside groups.
The production itself contains equally perplexing choices. When the project sends a hidden-camera along with a young black man on a job interview, for example, it reveals nothing — so much so that one wonders why the footage was included. Given O’Brien’s self-important tone, you mostly worry that she’s going to wrench a shoulder patting herself on the back.
In a broader sense, CNN deserves credit for seeking to reach deeper into complex issues than Wolf Blitzer’s overheated babble allows. Christiane Amanpour’s “God’s Warriors” struck just the right note: provocative, thoughtful and even generating a touch of controversy.
By all means, let’s see cable news join the conversation about race, but “Black in America” doesn’t give CNN much to talk about.