Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an author, Harvard professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and after watching his sequel to “African American Lives,” it’s good he has a day job. Although Gates probes interesting material in exploring family histories of famous and notable African Americans, his interview/presentation style — alternatively sycophantic and like a droning university lecture — drains the life from this four-hour project. “Lives” is accompanied by a tie-in book, and it’s laudable as a historical endeavor. Strictly as TV, however, it’s a wooden bore.
Broken into four hourlong chapters, “Lives” enlists a new group of luminaries — among them Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman and Tina Turner — to, along with Gates, delve into their genealogy, and experience “what our ancestors achieved in this country, and what they were forced to endure.”
With sporadic exceptions, though, Gates manages to render these intriguing personalities dull, in part thanks to a teacher’s delivery (as if he’s speaking to young schoolchildren) and gee-whiz approach.
In spite of this, the spec yields a few memorable exchanges, such as Rock recalling how he was almost casually subjected to the worst possible racial slur by a white student in his youth.
Still, Gates’ painstaking research and revelations about the participants’ roots — while moving for some of them — seldom come to life for the audience, and frequently leave even his subjects with relatively little to say. When Cheadle is enthusiastically told that an ancestor fought in the Civil War, for example, he quips, “Do I get anything for that?”
It’s obvious what Gates hopes to achieve, leveraging the celebrity of those he profiles to spray a new sheen on grainy photographs that kids might otherwise dismiss as dry old African-American history, more than 30 years after Alex Haley unearthed the drama in his own family tree.
Even in the confines of PBS, though, who really wants to feel like they’re back in junior high school? “Lives 2” plays like the kind of production they used to run after lunch to quiet down the kids — the one that half the class slept through, as often as not, hoping nobody would notice.