Mr. Nice Guy

In PBS’s Beyond the Color Line, Skip Gates panders to his celebrated interviewees.

Don Cheadle and Skip (the hard questions) Gates

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a small, engaging man who likes to go by the disarmingly casual name “Skip,” is an innovator on many fronts and a virtual brand name unto himself. As chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, he’s turned ethnic scholarship from a marginalized discipline into a glamorous endeavor, attracting an ever-shifting “dream team” of members of the black intelligentsia (which has included scholars like Cornel West and Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Afro-British filmmaker Isaac Julien). He is the creator and co-editor of the CD-Rom Encarta Africana, the first exhaustive Pan-African encyclopedia, as well as of the first Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Finally, professor Gates has accomplished something that no academic, black or white, has ever managed to do: He’s become a TV star. In 1999, Gates toured Africa for 12 months and made a six-hour PBS documentary about his trip. The result, titled Wonders of the African World With Henry Louis Gates Jr., sought to disabuse Westerners of the colonialist stereotype of Africa as a primitive and exotic “dark continent.” Now, with America Beyond the Color Line, a four-part series (and a companion to his book of the almost-same name, Behind the Color Line), Gates turns his attention homeward, investigating the meaning of a concept that’s often bandied around but seldom considered: the “African-American community.”

W.E.B. DuBois, the African-American author and civil rights activist, wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the 20th [c]entury is the problem of the color line, the relation of the darker races to the lighter races.” Gates’ series, which opens with a meditation on this quote by DuBois, sets out to examine the state of race relations at the beginning of a new century, not so much between blacks and whites as within the black community itself. The four one-hour episodes will air on PBS at different times throughout February.

Beyond the Color Line’s first hour, “South: the Black Belt,” follows Gates to three Southern cities: Memphis, Birmingham, and Atlanta. In each, he pays his respects to the shrines of the civil rights movement, beginning with a creepy visit to the motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The room where King spent his last night has been preserved exactly as he left it, complete with an unmade bed, cigarette butts and half-full cups of coffee; it has been walled off with a glass partition for public viewing. Later, in Birmingham, Gates stands awe-struck outside the Baptist church where four little girls were killed in a 1963 bombing by white supremacists. The counterintuitive premise of this first hour is that the South—the site of these national traumas—is now one of the best places to be black in America. An extended interview with a buppie family, comfortably ensconced in an all-black gated suburb of Atlanta, illustrates the relatively new phenomenon of upper-middle-class black flight while raising the spectral question: What about the inner-city black underclass that has been left behind?

Gates picks up that question in the series’ second, and hardest-hitting, episode. This hour, ironically titled “Streets of Heaven,” chronicles the lives of several denizens of the Robert Taylor housing projects in Chicago, which were torn down in 2003 after becoming a notorious example of urban blight. An interview with the 83-year-old Chicago historian Timuel Black is one of the high points of this hour—not only is Black a marvelous storyteller, but his candor is refreshing as he acknowledges his own role as a member of Chicago’s black elite, which distanced itself from the fresh influx of “country negroes” who migrated north in the ‘20s and ‘30s. “We gave them almost no help,” Black affirms regretfully. “Separation was dramatic and complete.”

In hour three, “East Coast: Ebony Towers,” Gates storms the bastions of political and economic power—well, as a tenured Harvard professor, he doesn’t so much “storm” as pull up in a chauffeured car—to interview figures such as Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, and Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines. Gates also meets up with rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons, a kind of anti-role model whose brief interview manages to glamorize drugs, greed, and consumerism in one manic limousine ride. Ever the nice professor, Skip rides shotgun, nodding politely. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell seems like a better bet in Gates’ search for a role model for black youths, until an interview with a Brooklyn activist who works with underprivileged teens reveals that none of her charges have ever heard of him. The best part of this episode focuses on the world’s only black chess grandmaster, Maurice Ashley, who has started a program to teach the game to inner-city schoolchildren. Ashley’s impassioned advocacy for the game and the critical thinking skills it develops confirm Gates’ heartfelt, if glib, assertion that “the blackest thing you can do is to get an education.”

Despite Beyond the Color Line’s scholarly pedigree and A-list interviewees, it too often falls victim to that bland, earnest tone that dogs the PBS documentary. Gates has a friendly screen presence and folksy interviewing style, but he’s remarkably willing to let tough subjects drop after only the briefest exploration. Throughout the series, he repeatedly presents his interview subject with this supposed challenge: “Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment.” He then proceeds to ask a question that suggests that, if this is the best advocating he can do, the devil might want to hire better counsel. Questioning an inner-city mother of six about her decision to keep having children, for example, Gates backs off the moment she gets defensive.

It’s not surprising that the final installment, “Los Angeles: Black Hollywood,” proves the puffiest of the four episodes. Movie stars are not known for their searing introspection, and their palpable mojo tends to reduce Gates to jelly: While interviewing the gorgeous 22-year-old singer Alicia Keys, a starry-eyed Gates tosses her a softball worthy of the E! network: “How do you see your career trajectory?” But actors Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle wittily hold forth on the paradox of race in Hollywood (“Eddie Murphy isn’t black; he’s famous,” cracks Jackson), and Quincy Jones, granddaddy of the black music industry, makes the quasi-Marxist point that musicians can never consolidate power until they own the rights to their own songs.

Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call Skip Gates a suckup, this segment in particular illustrates the weakness of Beyond the Color Line, which sometimes seems too comfortable settling for easy answers. When Gates asks comedian Chris Tucker, sitting in his palatial mansion in the San Fernando Valley, “Do you think you owe anything to the black community?” he responds with a comically exaggerated, “Hell no!” Gates laughs along with him—and then, at the very moment that we expect the two to wipe away the tears of mirth and get down to Tucker’s real answer, the camera cuts away to the next segment. In his interview with Gates, director John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, 2 Fast 2 Furious) proudly boasts that he’s ascended to the top of the Hollywood echelon: “And I ain’t had to kiss nobody’s pale ass to do it.” Having made it to the zenith of mainstream American success—Ivy League tenure, name recognition, and his own TV show—Gates shouldn’t have to pucker up either, no matter the color of the rump in question.