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By trying to deliver too many messages, the compelling reality of the civil rights movement is lost in TNT's "Freedom Song." 

Shoot the Messenger

"Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union," said the irrepressible motion picture mogul Samuel Goldwyn.

Did anybody tell Phil Alden Robinson or Stanley Weiser?

Robinson and Weiser, who wrote the script for TNT's "Freedom Song," allowed the message to get in the way of what might have been a good movie.

But that's not all that's wrong. "Freedom Song" is too long by about 45 minutes, and it's filled with more than enough clichés to stuff a bad Tom Clancy novel.

Made to air during Black History Month, "Freedom Song" tries to tell in microcosm the story of the beginnings of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a black teen-ager in the fictional Mississippi town of Quinlan. But the film's reach exceeds its grasp.

Robinson, who also directed the movie, says he and Weiser talked to hundreds of civil rights veterans and then tried to create a small, fictional corner of the story to illustrate the whole movement. So they crammed it all — voter registration drives, lunch-counter sit-ins, black versus white, old versus young, successes, failures, beatings, jailings and a murder — into one script. The result is akin to trying to fit 10 grownups into a VW Beetle. It's a hopeless cause.

"Freedom Song" is told through the eyes of Owen Walker (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a black teen-ager whose parents have been so worn down by racism that they forbid him to have anything to do with an organizer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who comes to Quinlan to help desegregate the town.

"My momma says I was born angry," Owen says in the movie's opening narration. "But my daddy says any boy born colored in Mississippi and ain't angry hasn't been paying attention."

Despite his parents' objections, Owen and his schoolmates rally to the SNCC cause. Owen's father (Danny Glover) confronts the SNCC organizer (Vondie Curtis Hall) without effect. Although Owen initially disparages the organization's nonviolent tactics, he later joins in the crusade with enthusiasm.

The town's black citizens, however, refuse to follow the SNCC path when violence begins to reign. But just as the organization's efforts seem to flag for the last time, Owen and his fellow students rally, and Owen learns that nonviolence can win where anger can't.

Don't look for shades of gray in "Freedom Song," however. The white Quinlan residents aren't just rednecks, they're evil rednecks drawn by Robinson and Weiser as caricatures rather than real people unable to break the chains of prejudice that bind them to their forefathers. The black characters fare little better. Robinson and Weiser haven't just given them a righteous cause, they've left them no room to maneuver within the piety of their personalities.

And at the end of two-and-a-half hours of pure evil and saintly goodness, the compelling reality of the civil rights movement is lost in "Freedom
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