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Eyes on the Prize II: A Nation of Law?

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So far, Eyes on the Prize II has been much more uneven than its predecessor; that’s because public television apparently can’t figure out what tone to take toward the more militant civil-rights movements and tumultuous events of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s easy to speak approvingly of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolence, but what abut Malcolm X’s ”by any means necessary” slogan for black survival?

The problem is highly evident during this hour, which is framed by two events: the killing of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police in 1969 and the 1971 uprising at New York’s Attica State Prison, a protest bloodily suppressed by police and state troops under the orders of then Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Television long ago succumbed to the notion that all depictions of violence must be broadcast with a tone of harsh disapproval. So it is difficult for ”Eyes on the Prize II” to distinguish between, say, the violence of the authorities at Attica and what Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Fred Hampton, murdered Panther and San Quentin inmate George Jackson, and many others were trying to accomplish in the name of self-defense and black pride.

Many people today, when they think about these events at all, probably would hold that the Panthers were violent and wrong-headed, and that Attica was tragic but inevitable. But, thrillingly, the visuals in ”A Nation of Law?” — the shocking news footage from that period and recent, moving interviews with the survivors of the era — contradict such complacent attitudes.

Merely by reminding us of that period of history, ”A Nation of Law?” stirs up exhilarating ideas, arguments, and emotions.

This period inspired a remarkable amount of first-rate journalism, most notably the shamefully neglected book ”Who Killed George Jackson?” by Jo Durden-Smith. (Anyone who admires ”Eyes on the Prize II” should seek it out.)

Almost despite itself, ”A Nation of Law?” can now take its place in that company, as TV journalism of the most powerful and essential sort. A