In cozy Oak Park, black students face a swirl of emotions

Oak Park, Ill., is a gorgeous place. I've gone there to admire the Frank Lloyd Wright creations; I'll return to see some of the Hemingway roots. But even in this good-natured town, known for segregation and diversity, black teens can feel ill-at-ease. Now a well-made  documentary series focuses on them. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Charles Donalson
figured he was an odd choice for a big-deal documentary.

“They should have
never put that camera on me,” he said with a grin. “I didn't take
it seriously.”

But it was serious
stuff: Steve James, a two-time Oscar-nominee, was starting “America
to Me,” a year-long project that followed black and biracial
students in Oak Park, Ill.

Some of the teens
found that imposing. “I felt like, because the camera was there,
other students would act differently,” Jada Buford said. “But
after a while, it just became natural.”

Donalson took a
different approach: “I went around the school telling people that
the cameras were really for the show 'Cheaters' ... and that they
weren't doing a good job of (secretly) following me.”

And in a way, he was
perfect for this. Beyond his light-hearted surface, Donalson brings
strong views.

“The people in
power don't ... want to give us the privileges they have,” he said.
“They don't even wanna give us books .... I've been in the
college-prep classes, I've been in the honors classes and I stopped
seeing people who looked like me in the honors classes.”

And that's in a town
that prides itself in fair play racially.

A Chicago suburb of
52,000, Oak Park is now ordinary town. Ernest Hemingway grew up there
... Frank Lloyd Wright moved there, creating gorgeous houses near his
own ... Others have ranged from Bob Newhart to the founders of Sears
and McDonald's.

Percy Julian, a
chemistry pioneer, moved there in 1950. His was the first black
family in Oak Park, greeted by firebombing ... and then by a
community segregation effort. Now blacks make up 22 per cent of the
city. “It's a diverse community,” said James, who is white. “It's
a very liberal community.”

He lives in Oak Park
and his top documentaries – “Hoop Dreams” (basketball) and
“Life Itself” (Roger Ebert) – were made nearby. His kids went
to school there; “it's a well-funded public high school.”

So James was
surprised when a racial controversy began, after the school scheduled
an assembly only for black students. He decided to have crews follow
some students for an entire year.

Donalson, now 19,
had a breezy approach. “I take it very lightly in the documentary,
but that's because I had a whole bunch of white people following me.
When I was 16, that was the most fun thing.”

What people will
also see, he said, are the sacrifices. Parents struggle to live in an
expensive suburb; for he and his mother, that often meant a
one-bedroom apartment. “My mom worked two full-time jobs, for us to
stay in Oak Park.”

That led to
extraordinary opportunities. Not every school has a spoken-word
teacher, guiding poets and rappers. “I wouldn't have been the poet
I am” without the help of Peter Kahn, Donalson said.

But most of the kids
from his old Chicago neighborhood will never have that, he said.
“Those are my friends (who) aren't allowed the same privileges as
me, just because their parents couldn't afford to live in this
neighborhood .... Go put a camera on them.”

That's a good idea,
James said – but not what this series is about. “I've done those
kinds of stories and those stories are very important and compelling,
(but) we wanted to try to look at a different part of what it means
to be black and biracial in America.”

That includes
Donalson, still scrambling. He received a scholarship to Wiley
College, a historically black school in Texas, known for its debate
teams in the past (depicted in “The Great Debaters,” Denzel
Washington's 2008 film) and present (2014 national champions).
Currently, however, he's taking a break from school; he's working
part-time and preparing a short (six or seven-song) album.

And he's observing
the world around him. Donalson was talking with the Television
Critics Association at the Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globes
and a golden lifestyle.

“Do you all know
how much food there is out there?” he asked. “When I was in here
yesterday, I'm watching all the money it probably takes to just set
up this room .... We're hoarding wealth, and that's the same thing
that Oak Park is doing.”

-- “America to
Me,” debuts 10 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 26), Starz

-- Reruns include 7
p.m. Monday, 10 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3:56 and 11:27 p.m.


In a not-so-innocent world, shapeshifting can be precarious

My own physical transformation came kind of early. I reached almost 6-foot by 8th grade and then abruptly -- too abruptly, I felt -- stopped. Any mental or emotional transformations -- a small-town kid in a big-city world -- would be much more gradual.

But for many teens, especially, transformations can be overwhelming. That's why we need fantasy fiction, to push it to the extreme. Now "The Innocents" arrives Friday on Netflix; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For teenagers,
transforming can seem creepy.

Their shape might
change a little; their height might spurt a lot. At the same time,
minds are growing and emotions are swirling.

It can be
overwhelming ... but not as much as what happens to June in
“Innocents,” the new Netflix series. One moment, she's a slender
teen; the next, she's a burly Scandinavian man.

“It's difficult
and stressful,” said Sorcha Groundsell, 20, who plays her. “It's
this medical condition that's brought on by extreme emotional

As the story starts,
the emotions are definitely extreme. She and Harry have fallen in
love and are fleeing their abusive parents. “I don't think it's
ever presented as happy-teens-run-away-together or crazy special
effects,” Groundsell said. “It's very much exploring the
psychological consequences.”

Their world is
changing anyway, as they go from quiet Yorkshire (of pudding and
terrier fame) to London. Now June is suddenly played by Johannes
Haukur Johannesson, a beefy, Icelandic actor who was Thomas in “A.D.”
and Lem in “Game of Thrones.”

Percelle Ascott, 25,
who plays Harry, must love them both. “Johannes is a phenomenal
actor who can portray June's characteristics,” he said.

For co-creators
Simon Duric and Hania Elkington, this suggests emotions that go well
beyond teens. “Even now, at 39, I'm gonna carry on changing for the
rest of my life,” Duric said.

They decided to make
it a malady that affects females. “Women's bodies change,”
Elkington said. “They go through childbirth. The female body,
particularly, is capable of extraordinary things.”

As men and women
change, their loved ones adapt. For Harry, Ascotte says, the
adaptation is extreme: “It's a case of: Can you ever love someone

This is like real
life, Groundsell said. “It's magnified, but it is a very relatable

Or, perhaps,

-- “The
Innocents,” eight-episode season arrives Friday (Aug. 24) on



"Mercedes" drives back into the drama Kingdom

"Mr. Mercedes" could easily have been a one-shot mini-series ... and a good one. But TV prefers series, so now it's back, opening Wednesday (Aug. 22). It has the same A-level writers (David Kelley adapting Stephen King) and the same stars ... but a much different approach, what with a key character being in a coma. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

A mind is a terrible
thing to wake.

At least, this mind
is. It belongs to Brady, who crashed a Mercedes-Benz into a crowd.

As the new “Mr.
Mercedes” season starts, he's been in a coma for a year.
Unfortunately, a scientist is doing experiments that could awaken

This is, after all,
a Stephen King tale; does that make it supernatural? Jack Bender, the
director, calls it “a character-rich show (that visits) what you
called 'supernatural,' but I'll call 'Stephen Kingdom.'”

All of that is
remixed by David Kelley, who's ranged from “Ally McBeal” to “The
Practice.” As actress Breeda Wool (who plays Brady's former work
colleague) says, for “Stephen King world, David Kelley is one hell
of a bridge.”

Kelley gave the
story a makeover, because the books' comtemplations were hard to
dramatize. He:

-- Juggled the plot,
to make retired cop Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) the main character.
In the first book, Bender said, Hodges “didn't come in ... until
about Page 250.”

-- Added a dream
scene in the season-opener, allowing Brady to walk, talk ... and even
dance. The goal, Bender said, was “to keep him active and not just
lying in a hospital bed.”

-- Manufactured a
major character, a neighbor who becomes Hodges' friend and
confidante. The old cop “needed to have some human being who is
dependable and sane and is some kind of safe haven,” said Holland
Taylor, who plays her.

Kelley also found
fun with a quirky character. Holly Gibney (Justine Lupe) is Hodges'
young, obsessive-compulsive partner in the Finders Keepers detective

“Every one of
these characters has challenges,” Bender said, but hers “are a
little more on the outside.”

Holland's character
even asks: “How weird are you?” In the “Stephen Kingdom,”
that's a key question.

-- “Mr. Mercedes,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, Audience Network, via DirecTV or AT&T
U-verse; second season starts Aug. 22


Betty White -- a lover of people, dogs, bears, games and hot dogs

I've interviewed Betty White often over the years and found her to be just what you'd expect -- smart, optimistic and caring. This story -- keyed to an Aug. 21 special on PBS -- is different: White wasn't available for a Television Critics Association session, but many of the people who know her were. Combining that with her memoir, here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

By now, Betty White
seems qualified for the TV version of sainthood.

Just ask Arthur
Duncan, who worked with her 64 years ago. “She was probably one of
the nicest, the grandest, the greatest of all people that I've had
the chance to meet,” he said.

Or ask Georgia
Engel, who sees her nowadays ... when they often talk about animals,
including a grizzly bear named Bambam. “She told me how to give
Bambam a marshmallow with my teeth, and the bear takes it,” Engel
said. “And Betty was so happy.”

Clearly, White –
the subject of a PBS profile Aug. 21 -- is beloved by colleagues,
bears and situation-comedy fans. At 96, she's been on 20 seasons of
sitcoms, led by “Golden Girls” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”;
she's been nominated for 21 Emmys, winning five times.

And there's more:
“She was the very first woman to appear on television,” said PBS'
Jerry Liwanag.

Or, at least, the
first to actually perform on TV. There had been some speeches and
such, but in 1939, a Los Angeles broadcaster tested TV. It asked two
Beverly Hills High teens to sing as the couple in the operetta “The
Merry Widow.” White, then 17, did the show in her graduation dress.

That was only seen
by their parents and a few others, she wrote in her memoir. “Our
telecast only carried from the sixth to the ground floor.”

That was the start
of television ... and her only role for a decade. She joined the
wartime Voluntary Services and briefly married twice – a pilot in
1945, an agent-turned-salesman in '47. It was in '49 that she started
to get work on a Los Angeles station – commercials, a song in a
disc jockey's special, a very brief comedy show and then “Grab Your
Phone,” a quiz show with viewers calling in answers.

White was just one
of the “phone girls,” but she sat at the end and adlibbed with
the host. That led to “Hollywood on Television,” Los Angeles'
only daytime show. (“It was us or the test pattern,” White
wrote.) She and the host chatted with guests, with each other and
sometimes even with passers-by. “Betty was doing five-and-a-half
hours, six days a week, live,” said Steve Boettcher, who produced
and directed the PBS special. “She really honed her skill for live

White did sketches
... and added a half-hour sitcom (“Life With Elizabeth”) that
aired nationally. She needed to be fast -- a trait she continued,
said Gavin MacLeod, her “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-star: “She
could look at a script (and) go up and do it. She was the quickest
study I had ever worked with.”

Compared to that
local-TV blur, her network debut was a breeze. “The Betty White
Show” was a live half-hour each weekday; White would chat with
guests, sing with the band and introduce other acts.

One was Duncan, a
dancer and singer, then 21. “It was a little scary, ... because it
was the first time I appeared on a national television show,” he
said. “(But) it was operated like a family show should.”

That became clear,
he said, when some Southern stations objected to him being there.
They “resented black Americans on the program .... I think that she
just stood up for her beliefs and that ended that.”

In the two decades
that followed, White was an occasional actress and a frequent guest
on talk shows and game shows ... especially “Password,” with host
Allen Ludden.

That started their
romance, Boettcher said -- “their love of games, their love of
'Password,' their love of word games. Betty still plays Scrabble
every week.”

They married in 1963
– he died at 63, in 1981 -- and linked with Ludden's friend, Grant
Tinker, and Tinker's then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore. “They
double-dated all the time,” Boettcher said.

When “Rhoda”
(Valerie Harper) was spun off into its own show, Moore's show
(produced by Tinker) created Sue Ann Nivens. It was the start of
White's comedy surge ... which was recharged at 88, when she hosted
“Saturday Night Live” and started a six-year run in “Hot in

That show ended in
2015, giving White, then 93, more time for occasional guest roles and
for her love of animals, games ... and hot dogs.

Yes, hot dogs; she
eats them every day, MacLeod said. “Betty White can do anything and
look as good as she does and live the life she's lived.”

-- “Betty White:
First Lady of Television,” 8-9:30 p.m. Aug. 21, most PBS stations;
some will vary, due to pledge drives.

-- “Golden Girls”
reruns often on Hallmark and TV Land, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” is
5-6 a.m. Fridays on Sundance; also, via digital, streaming and Amazon

-- “Here We Go
Again: My Life in Television,” by White, 1995, Scribner


Festival weaved a big finish

Pardon this brief detour from my TV world, but I wanted to wrap up a look at the first Lansing Eastside Folk Festival.

My previous blog was written at the fest's mid-point, when it was off to an amiable start. As it happens, the finish was big and booming and great fun. A mega-tent was packed with people to hear the Tannahill Weavers, who are wrapping up a 50th-anniversary tour.

Yes, 50 years.Two of the people -- Roy Gullane and Phil Smillie -- have been there for 48 of them and still play a key part. Gullane is the lead singer and a charming storyteller; Smillie usually sticks to flute and tinwhistle, but stirs up great energy when he starts banging the bodhran. John Martin, the fiddler, didn't get much attention, but Lorne MacDougall had a huge impact with his bagpipes. Like the vast majority of Americans (and reasonable people everywhere), I assumed I didn't like the bagpipes. MacDougall and the Weavers showed that I might be wrong.

Indoors, the festival had some impressive Native American artwork; outside, it got better (and younger) late in the day.

The one mistake made by the Great Lakes Folk Festival was to quit having the evening Valley Court Park concerts, which drew a much younger and more vibrant crowd. We saw a reflection of that with LEFF: Mostly, old people arrive early; young people arrive late. The morning and noontime concerts drew a crowd that was fairly large, very grey and quietly appreciative; the evening one with the Weavers drew a big, booming response, a good finish to an excellent festival.