Friends in an age of bias, they meet again after 75 years


It's time for some real-life stories that stir genuine emotion. When Ann Curry's "We'll Meet Again" debuts Tuesday (Jan. 23), it shows reunions of people who met during a time of World War II rage. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For two decades,
Reiko Nagumo has told the story to schoolkids.

She was a California
kid, just like them, when her world changed instantly. Japan bombed
Pearl Harbor; as a 7-year-old with Japanese roots, she was bullied by
many kids, befriended by one.

“Mary Frances had
been a very strong friend and a beacon to me,” recalled Nagumo, who
is featured in the opener of Ann Curry's “We'll Meet Again”
series. “I depended on her friendship.”

She told the story
often – usually while telling 5th-graders about her
years in a Japanese internment camp. Everyday gestures, she told
them, can make a huge impact.

But she had no
answer to their logical question: Whatever happened to Mary Frances?

Some attempts to
find her had gone nowhere. “I was going to have to die before
telling Mary Frances ... how much she meant to me,” Nagumo felt.

Then the
London-based producers of Curry's series heard about it. They linked
her to genealogists, who found a cousin; that's when the friend first
heard that someone from grade school was looking for her.

“I said, 'Well,
it's got to be Reiko,'” said the friend, now named Mary Peters. “I
had never forgotten her; I just wasn't looking like she was looking.”

Both women have had
busy lives. Nagumo was a nurse, working in Cambodia and Egypt and
then in California; Peters was a business executive, retiring in
Kentucky. She admits that those school days aren't vivid to her. “My
memory of my childhood is very slim.”

As Curry sees it,
that makes this even more impressive. It's “the idea that you could
do something that you can barely even remember now” that might
change someone's life.

This is the sort of
story British producer Justine Kershaw was looking for. She has her
own reunion story, involving the Greek goat-herder who rescued her
after a fall, and suspects many others do, too.

The first step was
finding the right news person to link with. She found Curry by
“literally, just Googling .... Every piece I saw just convinced me
that this was the person.”

The series arrives
at a vibrant time for newswomen. Curry worked at “Today” for 15
years and in 2011 became the anchor with Matt Lauer; she was dropped
from that job a year later and left NBC in 2015.

As her show arrives,
she faces questions about Lauer. Responding carefully in a “CBS
This Morning” interview, Curry said “there was a climate of
verbal harassment” at NBC and “I am not surprised by the
allegations” of sexual misconduct that led to Lauer being fired.

Speaking to the
Television Critics Association before the sexual-harassment issue had
broken open, Curry did indicate disappointment in TV news. “I am
getting a lot of my news, actually, from print.”

But she also was
optimistic. “I suspect we are heading toward a potential
renaissance .... To me, journalism is church and I'm very hopeful for
its future.”

-- “We'll Meet
Again,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays, PBS; then at www.pbs.org

-- The opener, Jan.
23, has World War II stories -- Reiko Nagumo's search for a friend
who resisted girlhood bias, Peter Engler's search for the daughter of
the people who befriended him in a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.

-- Runs for six
weeks; other stories range from Vietnam to the aftermath of the Sept.
11 attack.

 

A brief, brilliant life gets a superb TV portrait


The upcoming "American Masters" (Friday, Jan. 19) is one of the best TV films I've seen in a long time. (And yes, I've seem a lot of TV.) It beautifully portrays the short, brilliant life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. --
Almost 60 years ago, theater producers were fretting about a landmark
moment.

“A Raisin in the
Sun” -- the first Broadway show written by a black woman -- was an
intensely realistic look at a family on Chicago's South Side.

“There was a
fear,” recalled Lou Gossett, then a 22-year-old in a supporting
role. “Mostly, a fear that started with the Schuberts (who owned
the theater) .... Who was going to understand it? Are people who buy
the tickets going to be insulted?”

As the first act
ended, he said, the audience was silent. “We thought we had
failed.”

People had simply
been too emotional to react, he soon found. As the show ended, there
was a thunderous ovation. “That was a magic night.”

Hansberry would win
the Pulitzer Prize, become an instant New York celebrity ... then die
(at 34, of cancer) six years later, shortly after her second Broadway
show had failed.

“Raisin,”
however, lingers -- two Broadway revivals, a musical, a movie and two
TV movies. And now Hansberry's story is vividly told by PBS filmmaker
Tracy Heather Strain. “This is something I've wanted to do for
almost 40 years,” she said.

Strain was a
teen-ager in Harrisburg, Pa., when her grandmother announced they
were going to “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a play molded from
Hansberry's essays.

“I don't know what
it was about Lorraine, but it was like a thunderbolt,” she
recalled. “Here was a young, black woman who had thought about the
same issues I had.”

Strain was
Harvard-bound; her grandmother had worked as a domestic. Both were
moved by the words of Hansberry – who grew up in a prosperous black
family and kept fighting for her neighbors.

Eventually, Strain
would dump her advertising/marketing major and switch to filmmaking.
She's worked on several “American Experience” documentaries and
started compiling a Hansberry film – gradually. “It's been a long
journey,” she said. “It's been 14 years.”

It took five years,
Strain said, to get an interview with Sidney Poitier, the original
“Raisin” star. She caught several key people (including director
Lloyd Richards) before their deaths. Others are still around, with
vivid memories of Hansberry.

“I always saw
sparks of that fire in her,” Gossett said. “It scared me from
time to time .... She was not easy to get to, so I just looked at her
as somebody quite brilliant.”

-- “American
Masters -- Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart”

-- 9 p.m. Friday,
PBS

Vesace story: An epic tragedy reaches TV


To me -- and to many people -- "Versace" was just a name on upscale fashions. Now we'll know much more; a beautifully crafted mini-series starts Jan. 17 and continues for eight Wednesdays; here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- When “The People
vs. O.J. Simpson” arrived, it caused a stir.

Here was a
confluence of quality – 22 Emmy nominations, with nine wins – and
a familiar subject.

Two years later,
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace” has the same producers,
network (FX) and umbrella title (“American Crime Story”). The
quality is there; the familiarity is not.

Versace? Many people
know he was a prominent designer whose brand persists, 20 years after
he was killed in Miami Beach. There is much more, people say, in his:

-- Work. “He
combined sexiness and glamour and opulence, like no one has ever done
before,” said Edgar Ramirez, who portrays him. “He could see the
sexiness of the '70s and then all the opulence of the '80s and ... in
the '90s he combined it and everybody went crazy.”

-- Social views.
This was the first major designer to acknowledge he was gay, said
producer Ryan Murphy said. That was when his company “was about to
go public, and he was terrified of anything coming out negative about
his personal life .... It was a huge thing to announce that he was
gay.”

-- Relationships.
This was a family guy, Murphy said. “His relationship with (his
sister) Donatella is particularly moving. And I think his
relationship with Antonio was very moving.”

Antonio D'Amico was
Versace's lover for 15 years. “Gianni was surrounded by 'yes'
people,” said Ricky Martin, who portrays him. But “Antonio would
say, 'I'm sorry, but you're wrong.' (He) would push him to live to
the fullest.”

Yes, that's the
Ricky Martin who's a music superstar. Another singer – Darren
Criss, who co-starred in Murphy's “Glee” -- plays Andrew Cunanan,
who shot Versace.

“Andrew was so
many different personalities to so many different people,” Criss
said. “We see him at his best, we see him at his worst. We see him
at his most charming; see see him at his most hurt. ”

Cunanan had grown up
near San Diego, with a genius-plus IQ and a reputation for lies.

“A lot of people
close to him absolutely knew he was lying, that he was an inveterate
liar,” said Maureen Orth, a reporter whose book (“Vulgar Favors”)
was the basis for the mini-series. “But they didn't care, because
he was very witty about it; he was able to charm people.”

Orth was writing
about him in Vanity Fair, before he shot Versace. He was already
accused of killing four people, starting with friends and lovers.

For a potential
high-achiever, life had gone wrong. When Cunanan was 19, his dad was
accused of embezzling and fled. Later, his mom fought with him after
learning he was gay.

Cunanan was also
making no impact on the world, something he wasn't used to. “In his
high school yearbook, he was named 'most likely to be remembered,'”
Orth said.

Now the killings
began and he was on the FBI's 10-most-wanted list. Still, Cunanan
“was able to make his way across he country and pick off these
victims – many of who were gay – because of the homophobia of the
time .... Police organizations refused in Miami to put up 'wanted'
posters, even though they knew (Cunanan) was probably headed that
way.”

Miami Beach was
Versace's new world. He had grown up in Southern Italy and didn't
move to the Milan fashion center until he was 26. He was 45 when he
moved to Miami, turning the Amsterdam Palace apartment house into his
spectacular estate. He “lived outrageously and daringly” in his
leisure time, Murphy said, but not in his work.

“He was rather a
quiet person (who was) extroverted but shy at the same time,”
Ramirez said. “He would got to bed rather early and had more the ..
life of a craftsman.” It was a busy life, which was ended suddenly
when he was 50.

-- “The
Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story – The Man Who
Would Be Vogue”

-- 10 p.m.
Wednesdays, FX; the Jan. 17 debut reruns at 11:14 p.m. and 12:26 and
1:39 a.m.

 

Black Lighting arrives as a much-needed superhero


Here's another interesting story I sent ti papers from the TV Critics Association sessions.

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. -- In
the old days, comic-book heroes had simple TV lives.

They were quite
super, kind of spider-y and bat-like and hulky. They beat up bad
guys.

And now? We're in an
era when even Archie Andrews has depth. This is clearly the time for
“Black Lightning” and black hero, Jefferson Pierce.

“Jefferson is
already a community-based superhero,” said producer Salim Akil.
“He's already a (school) principal; he's already a father. It gave
me the opportunity to talk about things that are personal to me.”

Back in 1977, the
character debuted in a comic-book world that was mostly white. “I
did love superheroes,” recalled Cress Williams, who plays him now.
“Unfortunately, I was 'po,' so I didn't buy a lot of comics,
because that's a lot of money. So I relied on television.”

There, Black
Lighting appeared occasionally, voiced by Bumber Robinson, Blair
Underwood, Khary Payton and LeVar Burton. Now it's his time. “I
think it's beautiful that we have 'Luke Cage,' that we have us and we
have 'Black Panther,'” Williams said.

The other two are
Marvel Comics characters; this year, “Cage” has its second
Netflix season and “Panther” reaches movie theaters. Meanwhile,
“Black Lightning” is from DC Comics, which fills half the CW
network schedule; it's from the married duo of Salim and Mary Brock
Akil.

He started in drama
(“Soul Food”), she started in comedy (“Moesha,”
“Girlfriends”), but they've combined for both the comedy “The
Game” and the drama “Being Mary Jane.”

A key was finding
the right star. Williams, 47, has ranged from “Nash Bridges” to
“Hart of Dixie,” in a long career, “When you walk down the
halls of Warner Brothers, there are pictures of their shows,” Akil
said. “Evey time I would (see) Cress, he would be on a poster with
all these white people.”

Now he's the star,
with two more heroes coming. The first two episodes – with Pierce
reluctantly returning to crimefighting – hint at the powers his
daughters don't realize they have.

One (played by
Disney Channel star China Anne McClain) is still a teen looking for
fun. The other is an intense teacher and activist; she'll become
Thunder, TV's first black lesbian superhero.

Tougher to cast was
the albino villain who emerges in the second episode.“I was
surprised to see how similar my life is to Tobias Whale ... being a
black man with albinism,” Marvin Jones III said.

Jones grew up in
South Central Los Angeles and turned to rap when he was 18. “It
allowed me to really be myself, with a platform,” he said.

In 2003, the group
SAS (Strong Arm Steady) emerged, gradually sifting to three people –
Krondon (Jones' stage name), Mitchy Slick and Phil Da Agony. It's
done well, but Jones tried to get into acting. He landed exactly one
role – a guest shot on “Harry's Law,” six-plus years ago.

Then came a role
that may be his exact opposite. Tobias is fiercely evil; in person,
Jones seems gentle and friendly. “Everyone has a villain inside,”
he said. “It allows me to exorcise that.”

Besides, he's used
to contrasting images, as an albino who's proud of his African
heritage. “It goes back to what Dr. (Martin Luther) King said about
not being judged by the color of your skin.”

-- “Black
Lightning,” 9 p.m. Tuesdays, CW; the opener airs Jan. 16, then
reruns at 8 p.m. Jan. 19

This version of Chicago is tough and lethal ... with a promise of joy ahead


The opening hour of cable's "The Chi" was a tough ride, but underneith the tragedy were great characters ... and a promise of better things ahea. You can still catch the opener (which reruns almost every night this week) and stop reading when you get to the spoiler alert. Or read the whole thing and start with the second episode, at 10 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 14) on Showtime. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

PASADENA, Cal. --
The opening hour of Showtime's “The Chi” was a rough ride for
viewers.

Two promising teens
were killed ... one for mysterious reasons, the other mostly by
accident. Now there's more talk of revenge and retribution.

But the people
involved have a quick promise: There's also a lot of joy – in the
fictional “Chi” and in the real-life Chicago.

“I look at my
youth as a joyful time,” said Common, the rapper-actor who's one of
the producers. “Chicago is a place where ... there may be some
violence, but there's so much spirituality. It's barbecues, block
clubs, skating ... just spending time with friends.”

The good parts
prevail, said Lena Waithe, who created the show. “Black people are
masters at finding joy in the midst of pain and sorrow. Because we
have seen our fair share of (sorrow) in this country. So I think we
know how to find a smile.”

She grew up copying
the people around her in some ways -- “I was cursing like a sailor
at 8 and 9, because ... I grew up in a house with a lot of women who
cursed” -- and not in others. Last year, she co-wrote a “Master
of None” episode, based on her own coming-out experience with her
mother; that script made her the first black woman to win an Emmy for
writing.

Now, at 33, she's
finding new black actors. There's Tiffany Boone, who grew up in
foster homes in Baltimore, where her dad was killed when she was 4 or
5 ... Alex Hibbert, who's from Miami, where he landed a role in the
Oscar-winning “Moonlight” ... and Jason Mitchell, who is busy.
Waite calls him “a black Tom Hanks”; Common adds: “It's like
having LeBron James in his prime.”

Mitchell plays
Brandon, a guy trying to beat the odds. He's a cook, with dreams of
opening a restaurant with his girlfriend (Boone); he's focuses on
beating the odds ... an impulse Mitchell understands.

“Like Brandon, I
had the inner hope,” Mitchell said. “I could look around me and
see a bunch of beautiful people in a bad situation.”

That was in New
Orleans, where, he says, he went to one of the “four worst schools
in the nation.”

Then his life
transformed. “When I was 22, my best friend was killed,” Mitchell
said. “After that, I was just like, 'Well, maybe making new friends
might be the way to go ....

“I went to this
random acting workshop that was only, like, eight weeks and was just
passing through New Orleans, and I just loved it.”

An agent visited,
Mitchell said, and told the class: “'This young man's life is about
to change.' I was sitting there, like, 'Me? I can't believe this!'”

It quickly became
true. Mitchell drew praise and nominations as Eazy-E in “Straight
Outta Compton” and as a World War II veteran in “Mudbound”; at
30, he's at the core of “The Chi.”

(SPOILER ALERT;
those who still plan to see the “Chi” opener should skip the
rest.)

In the opener,
Brandon's younger brother happened to see and loot the body of a
slain teen. He was arrested and released ... but then was
accidentally shot by the father of the first victim.

Now two people are
dead and Brandon is looking for revenge. There are dark possibilities
ahead ... but Waithe and Common promise they're headed for something
more joyful.

-- “The Chi,” 10
p.m. Sundays, Showtime.

-- Opener (Jan, 7)
reruns often, including 10 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 9); 9 and 11:32 p.m.
Wednesday; 10:30 p.m. and midnight Thursday; 7:15 p.m. Friday; and 8
and 11 p.m. Saturday.