The two-hour wrap up of the civil-rights drama “I’ll Fly Away” launches somewhat awkwardly, but thanks to a mostly fine script by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, good acting and strong direction, it eventually soars to levels seldom reached on U.S. television.
Bumpy start is achieved by fast-forwarding from the early ’60s and Bryland, Ga. (setting for the series during its NBC run), to the present, when grandmother Lilly Harper (Regina Taylor) starts educating her rap-singing, move-busting grandson Lewis (Amir Jamal Williams) about his heritage. The contemporary introduction is contrived, but once the action moves to 1962, the telepic hits its mark.
Borrowing heavily from the case of Emmett Till — a black youth lynched for being “uppity” to a white woman — story centers mostly on the death of a friend’s nephew, Elden Simms (Brent Lowe), who is visiting from Detroit. After he has approached and apparently insulted a white woman, he is taken away in the dark of night by two white men and killed.
Only Lewis (Bill Cobb), Lilly’s father, can identify the men. After much soul-searching, he does, and Lilly, her daughter Adlaine (Rae’ven Kelly), and Lewis, fearing for their lives, leave Bryland and the Bedford household, where Lilly has been maid and surrogate mother to the three Bedford children.
Crucial difference between the 1993 and 1962 scenes is the former scenes are a little preachy about Rodney King, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, while the latter scenes resonate with poignant action as well as fine dialogue. The mature Lilly tells her grandson why he (and the rest of us) should care about the civil rights movement; the drama of the flashback shows why.
There is no contemporary scene that says as much as one that shows Lilly wiping Adlaine’s brow in the afternoon sun while John Morgan (John Aaron Bennett) takes swimming classes at the segregated pool. A shot of Adlaine standing in the shade, sadly, silently pondering why the white girls can refresh themselves in the inviting water while she sweats like a farm animal is worth 10 minutes of talk about the movement.
There are some effective contemporary scenes, however. Lilly is so charged up after telling the story to her grandson that she goes back to Bryland and the Bedford house for the first time since they fled. When she and Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston) finally meet as peers, it’s a touching moment. Forrest surrenders his superiority and Lilly embraces her equality with equal grace.
Taylor is at her best as the younger Lilly; Waterston is surprisingly effective as the older Bedford. Cobb gives a moving performance as Lilly’s father, a man seemingly resigned to his fate who finally finds the strength to stop accepting the Southern status quo.
As Lilly’s grandson, Williams gives the only unconvincing performance in the whole pic.
Ian Sander’s direction is first-rate; camerawork is occasionally less than smooth, but the overall look of the pic is good.