The Way It Was?nby Lorrin AndersonnThe Ethics of DocudramanTniinhe nation must be grateful thatnmillions of Americans … arenbeing taught night after night lessonsnthat may help them live more amicablynwith their fellow citizens.”nThat’s Walter Goodman, writing innthe New York Times. “Goaded bynminority groups,” he says, “commercialntelevision has become a leader innthe movement to get Americans tonaccept other Americans . . . the biggestnsuccesses in the continuing pushand-shovenhave been won by minorityngroups bent on converting negativenimages into positive images.”nWalter Goodman, as it happens, is anperceptive and generally fair-mindednTV critic, and he’s not the kind of guynto delude himself, or us: “The point,npardon the word, is propaganda —nmild, benign, not force-fed by thenstate, but propaganda all the same.”nBut he’s not complaining either: “Thatnis as it must be.”nMust it?nHow grateful should we be that wenare being force-fed by an entertainmentnestablishment that keeps shovelingnout the agitprop? That the aimnis ostensibly benign — tolerance,nbrotherhood — doesn’t put the questionnto rest.nThe Goodman quotes are actuallynfrom a piece he wrote a couple of yearsnago. But they apply a fortiori today.nwhen every other sitcom and fictionalndrama carries a social message, usuallynstacking the deck in favor of the latestnelitist fashions in right thinking.nWhere race is involved, nobody innhis right mind can object to attempts tonput positive images of blacks on television.nEven casting gambits that defyncurrent social probabilities — like makingnmost street criminals white andnmost (non-corrupt) judges black ornfemale or both — are perhaps more ornless harmless. But intellectual dishonestynis dangerous at best, and it gets tonbe a particularly sticky business whennthe vehicle is that unholy amalgam ofnpurported journalism and sensationalizednentertainment, the docudrama.nWhen a movie purports to be essentiallynfactual, and superimposes a crawlnat the end telling us what ultimatelynhappened to the principals in realnlife—well, given a skillfully doctorednscript and the powerful, visual impactnof television, millions of people probablynthink that’s the way it was, the waynit really happened. And when thatnwasn’t the way it was, in centrallynimportant ways—when we’re getting andistorted picture of American historynor social reality, or both — the result isnlikely to be not benign but pernicious;nthe well-meaning attempt to promotenracial harmony may well end up exacerbatingnanimosities, fueling white resentment,nand feeding black paranoia.nAttacks on the docudrama — fromnboth left and right—are hardly new.nBut it just keeps rolling along. Case innpoint: a made-for-TV movie that appearednearlier this year, on NBC: IfnLooks Could Kill: The Maria HansonnStory.nThe crime the movie is based onnwas a shocker even for New York:nMODEL SLASHED! The razorwieldingnthugs who cut Maria Hansonnup in the summer of 1986 weren’tntrying to kill her. They just wanted tondestroy her face. They didn’t quitensucceed; the long red gashes they leftnwere not, thanks to extensive plasticnsurgery, ultimately disfiguring. But thenscars will always be there, and thenattack ended a promising career beforenthe cameras.nCut to February 1991: Maria Hanson,nthe Movie. A story with thencustomary departures from reality —ndramatic license — and with an increasinglynfamiliar bonus, a sort ofnnncultural affirmative action that holds upna distorting mirror to the racial complexitiesnof American society.nMaria was — is — a Missouri girlnwho had come to the Big Apple toncarve out a career, and she was startingnto get some breaks. The crime wasninstigated by a white man named StevenRoth, who had sublet an apartment tonMaria and two other young womennand who, in a twisted way, wanted tonbe more than a landlord — Maria’snlover, in fact; that’s the way the movienportrayed it, anyway. (It didn’t mentionnthat Roth had a homosexual relationshipnwith at least one of the two blacknfriends he hired to carry out the razornattack.) The ostensible reason for thenassault was money: Maria, fed up withnRoth, wanted to move out, and shenwanted her security deposit back. Rothnreluctantly agreed, but instead of givingnher the money he set her up for thenslashing. (Roth and his two friendsnwere all convicted and went to jail,nthough they’ll soon be eligible fornparole.)nThe most striking thing about thencase, aside from the bizarre nature ofnthe crime, was the way Maria Hansonnwas twice victimized, first by Roth andnthe slashers and then by the lawyer fornthe two black defendants. And the mannwho mounted the second assault — annunbelievably brutal courtroom attacknon Maria as witness — was AltonnMaddox, the bitterly antiwhite agentnprovocateur who has since been barrednfrom practicing law because of his rolenin the Tawana Brawley hoax. Undernthe tolerant eye of Judge Jeffrey Atlasn(you have to be careful about reining innmilitant black lawyers if you don’t wantnto be called a racist), Maddox announcednthat it was his circus now, thatnhe was the ringmaster who was goingnto “get that lyin’ bitch.” He went on tonadminister a verbal battering, paintingnMaria as a slut and trying unsuccessfullynto get her to say the word “c ” onnthe stand (to describe herself). It isndifficult to believe that a white lawyer,nespecially in these days of feministnconcern, could have gotten away withnanything like it.nWhile the crime involved an attacknon a white woman by two blacks,nnobody, including the press and Marianherself, assigned any particular significance,nat first, to the racial element.n(Imagine, if you can, the racial uproarnSEPTEMBER 1991/53n