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'House Divided' a lesson on love

The Showtime movie about a slave, her master and their daughter examines how people fall in love - and how they don't.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


She knows that, on the surface, it seems like just another story about a mistreated slave woman.

But The Practice star Lisa Gay Hamilton -- never one to shrink from a frank discussion of stereotypical roles on TV and in film -- maintains that her new TV movie, A House Divided, is also much more.

"What we haven't done, as a people, is embrace and recognize what we've been through," says Hamilton, resisting the notion that Hollywood spends too much time creating stories about victimized black people.

"Do I want to do another one of these? Not necessarily," adds Hamilton, who also played a mistreated slave in the film Beloved. "But I also don't want to disregard the stories from (black people's) history."

A House Divided centers on the true story of Amanda America Dickson, a woman whose claim to inherit her father's Georgia plantation is derailed in 1885, after it is revealed that she is the biracial daughter of her father David and slave Julia Lewis (Hamilton).

Law & Order star Sam Waterston plays David Dickson as a brash, unthinking slave owner who rapes Lewis and later comes to love her. Upon his death, Dickson wills most of his land to Amanda (Jennifer Beals) in an attempt to make sure both Amanda and Lewis are cared for.

"One of the things that fascinated me so much about the story is that we haven't come that far in terms of . . . how obsessed with race we are and how we let it get in the way of people that we choose to love," said Beals, who is biracial (her father is black and her mother is Irish).

"I hope that the film will make it very clear that love cannot be coded by color," she added.

As Amanda fights a court challenge by her father's brother to the will, flashback scenes outline the relationship between her father and real mother -- something the family had kept from her for years to help her blend into white society.

Educated in the finest schools and well traveled, Amanda doesn't learn the truth of her heritage until a white man seeks her hand in marriage. Unable to reconcile the lifelong lie, she runs from home until her father's death draws her back to Georgia.

Waterston, who also served as a producer on the movie, said he was drawn to the film by the story of Amanda Dickson -- a rare, rich woman of color in the post-Civil War South -- and the web of personal relationships sparked by her birth.

"Just where did these people end up . . . (and) what did they understand of what they had done to each other?" asked the star, acknowledging that recent news about Thomas Jefferson's family with slave Sally Hemings may have added a topical flavor. "There is a tremendous amount of intrinsic drama (here)."

But there was one point on which the major players disagreed: Did Lewis fall in love with her master?

Waterston wanted the two eventually to reconcile. "I had a more romantic notion," he acknowledges now. Still, Hamilton insisted that a woman raped by her master and forced to watch as his family raised her child could never come to love that man.

Her persistence paid off with a searing scene, in which Dickson tries to win forgiveness from Julia -- only to be told she stayed on the plantation for years, eventually running the operation, only to make sure her daughter's success is assured.

"It was important, I thought, to express the truth here, which is: You may be in love with me, but I certainly am not in love with you," Hamilton said. "It's unfortunate to tell stories that aren't truthful . . . because it gets perpetuated over and over again.

"If some Sally boo-boo was playing Julia, I guarantee you, that scene would have been different," she added. "Because nobody would have brought it up."

The problem, Waterston admitted, was that he wanted the two characters to reconcile without ever admitting or discussing the depths of pain and humiliation caused by Dickson's actions.

"Reconciliation could only have followed dealing with all of those issues, which was beyond his character to do," the actor added. "It could only go so far."

Instead, A House Divided emerges as a brave look at a type of family that was probably more common in our nation's history than anyone knows.

"There's so many unique human beings out there, and one reason we are where we are is that we don't know each other," Hamilton said. "That's why these stories need to be told."

At a glance

A House Divided airs at 8 p.m. tonight on Showtime.

Grade: A.

Rating: TV-14.

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