Stars ex­pose prob­lems, seek so­lu­tions on ‘Amer­ica Di­vided’

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - STATE NEWS - By Fra­zier Moore AP Tele­vi­sion Writer

Nor­man Lear, a show busi­ness leg­end and full-throated hu­man­ist, set out last spring to rent a mod­est apart­ment in the Bronx.

The land­lord wel­comed this incog­nito white man with a cou­ple of of­fers.

Not so lucky was an African-Amer­i­can man who had come to him the day be­fore. The land­lord, in­sist­ing noth­ing was avail­able, brusquely turned that man away.

This un­der­cover mis­sion, as well as Lear’s sub­se­quent blow­ing the whis­tle on the land­lord, was filmed for “Amer­ica Di­vided,” a stardriven, eye-open­ing probe into sys­temic in­equal­ity in the U.S. to­day not only in hous­ing but also ed­u­ca­tion, health care, la­bor, crim­i­nal jus­tice and vot­ing rights.

The five-week do­cuseries, which pre­mieres Fri­day at 9 p.m. EDT on Epix, em­ploys the 94-year-old Lear (armed with a hid­den cam­era) as one of its cor­re­spon­dents as well as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer.

“I’m happy to have reached the 1 per­cent,” said Lear, back in New York, where he spent part of his child­hood, to shoot his re­port, “but I started as a kid in the De­pres­sion whose fa­ther was serv­ing (prison) time. But what was won­der­ful about Amer­ica was it of­fered me op­por­tu­nity. And it promised that op­por­tu­nity to every­body else, re­gard­less of the color of their skin. Af­ter all these years, that prom­ise has yet to be de­liv­ered on. I care about that.” Oth­ers who care in­clude: • Hip-hop artist and ac­tor Com­mon, who ex­plores dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in his home­town of Chicago in the af­ter­math of the 2014 po­lice killing of teenager Laquan McDon­ald.

• Rosario Daw­son trav­els to Flint, Michi­gan, to probe how the gov­ern­ment poi­soned its own ci­ti­zens, a mostly African-Amer­i­can un­der­class.

• “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Wil­liams heads to St. Peters­burg, Florida, where he finds an ed­u­ca­tional and crim­i­nal-jus­tice di­vide re­sult­ing from what some call “re-seg­re­ga­tion.”

• Amer­ica Fer­rera, whose par­ents and sib­lings em­i­grated from Hon­duras, trav­els to Texas’ Rio Grande Val­ley to re­port on the plight of Cen­tral Amer­i­can refugees.

• Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis ex­am­ines the na­tion’s deep­en­ing po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions as ev­i­denced in his na­tive state of North Carolina.

• Amy Poehler ven­tures into the world of the in­vis­i­ble im­mi­grant women who help keep the Cal­i­for­nia econ­omy afloat: do­mes­tic work­ers.

• And Pe­ter Sars­gaard looks at the ad­dic­tion cri­sis in Day­ton, Ohio, where the shut­ter­ing of Amer­ica’s fac­to­ries and ram­pant unem­ploy­ment ex­em­pli­fies a heart­land epi­demic of dru­gand al­co­hol-re­lated deaths.

How­ever un­set­tling, each story stands as more than a cry of dis­tress. The nar­ra­tives not only ex­pose wrong­do­ers and bear wit­ness to vic­tims, but also high­light ded­i­cated re­form­ers.

In Lear’s hous­ing seg­ment, view­ers meet Fred Freiberg, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of New York’s Fair Hous­ing Jus­tice Cen­ter, which flushes out dis­crim­i­na­tory hous­ing prac­tices, then sues the of­fend­ers. It is Freiberg’s agency that dis­patches Lear and his African-Amer­i­can coun­ter­part on their land­lord-bust­ing mis­sion.

“With ev­ery story, we tried to show causes of in­equal­ity and the im­pacts of in­equal­ity, but we also tried to pro­vide mod­els of so­cial ac­tion,” says Solly Granat­stein, a cre­ator of the “Amer­ica Di­vided” se­ries. “We try to show that there are so­lu­tions and there is work be­ing done, that it’s not just sim­ply a prob­lem.”

For the se­ries, Granat­stein, a nine-time Em­my­win­ning for­mer pro­ducer at ABC News, NBC News and CBS’ “60 Min­utes,” joined forces with Richard Row­ley, whose cred­its in­clude the 2013 Os­car-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary “Dirty Wars,” and Lu­cian Read, with whom Granat­stein teamed on their pre­vi­ous do­cuseries, “Years of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ously,” which ad­dressed the threat of cli­mate change. (Their Di­vided Films pro­duced the se­ries in as­so­ci­a­tion with Rad­i­calMe­dia.) For this new ven­ture, the trio set out to look at what Granat­stein calls “the OTHER ex­is­ten­tial threat to our so­ci­ety and cul­ture.”

For this, they en­listed Lear, draw­ing on his show­busi­ness grav­i­tas and his his­tory of so­cial ac­tivism. Com­mon, too, signed on as a cor­re­spon­dent-ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, while TV hit­maker Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scan­dal”) came aboard as a be­hindthe-scenes exec pro­ducer.

Then the task be­gan to set­tle on sto­ries and re­cruit star-cor­re­spon­dents to re­port them. “There’s no short­age of sto­ries that we could have done,” says Granat­stein with a wan smile. “But we were look­ing for ge­o­graph­i­cal and de­mo­graphic di­ver­sity, and where there were heroic in­di­vid­u­als and groups who were strug­gling to heal the di­vide, what­ever that di­vide might be.”

The project, in the works for more than two years, was timed to air dur­ing the home stretch of this elec­tion sea­son, when is­sues from the se­ries might help in­form the cam­paign di­a­logue.

“If you get peo­ple at­tuned to these is­sues,” said Granat­stein, “then, even­tu­ally, there could be a whole so­ci­etal shift.” It’s a long slog, noted Lear, whose own cru­sade to stir the pub­lic reaches back to his so­cially con­scious sitcoms like “All in the Fam­ily” nearly a half-cen­tury ago.

“But I don’t want to wake up the morn­ing I don’t have hope,” he de­clared. Boast­ing 34,000-plus morn­ings and count­ing, Lear per­sists among the hope­ful on “Amer­ica Di­vided.”

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