Superb six-hour PBS series being given the three-night miniseries treatment by the pub-caster is virtually without flaws — a visually dynamic, intellectually stirring achievement that instantly takes its place astride the Civil Rights classic “Eyes on the Prize” as a definitive document of the black experience in America during the 20th century. This time, the struggle is for African-American identity and equality in self-expression and the arts, and the prize is a rich artistic legacy that did much to build the black culture. It represents public broadcasting at its most provocative.
Vast in scope, “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts” blends a phenomenal archive of historical footage with the insights, commentary and analysis of an all-star array of black artists and cultural icons to forge a dazzling tapestry that chronicles a circuitous journey of trial and triumph. Among those who helped fund the project along with Blackside Inc. of Boston and Thirteen/WNET of New York were Bill and Camille Cosby.
Vanessa Williams serves as the passionate narrator of a series whose individual hourlong segs (presented in two-hour clumps) house unique perspectives and insights, beginning with opening installment, “Lift Every Voice,” that starts at the turn of the century to illuminate the careers of such groundbreaking early black vaudevillians as Bert Williams and George Walker and their battle to win over mainstream auds. It also charts the birth of jazz in New Orleans and the racial segregation that complicates life for the early entertainers.
Show hits its stride in superlative second stanza, “Without Fear or Shame,” which examines the years from WWI through the Great Depression and the emergence of the great female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. More importantly, it details the first divisive debates over how blacks could use artistic success to prop up the fortunes of the entire community — and whether that was, indeed, a good strategy.
“Bright Like a Sun” is the title of the third hour, moving from the Depression through World War II and the emergence of such breakthrough performers as Paul Robeson (who used his clout and fame to fight for black equality) and the arrival on the scene of breakthrough jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It leads into fourth seg, “The Dream Keepers,” which zeroes in on the falling racial barriers in popular entertainment and the crossover appeal of such projects as the Broadway hit “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Fifth hour, “Not a Rhyme Time,” picks up in the 1960s as black artists are making an unprecedented impact in Hollywood films, on Broadway and in pop music via Motown, moving through the 1970s and ’80s with writer Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize. Final installment, “The Freedom You Will Take,” moves compellingly through the contemporary landscape and such unique black success stories as filmmakers Spike Lee and John Singleton and the emergence of rap and hip-hop.
Material is lent perspective and urgency through a series of on-screen “witness” interviews with a stellar roster featuring Quincy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Ben Vereen, historical scholar Gerald Early, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and many others.
Writer Sheila Curran Bernard brings the subject to life stylishly.
“I’ll Make Me a World” is, in short, about as good as it gets on PBS. It follows Ken Burns’ example in showcasing that history need not be boring. When told with the kind of vibrant clarity as it is here, in fact, it’s about as stimulating as TV can get. Tech credits are perfecto.