When Heaven Turned To Hell

In the flickering black-and-white footage, a woman is picking cotton, dragging a sack behind her on which an infant sits. This scene from some forgotten ar-chive is an archetypal image of the black sharecropper's life in Mississippi. It's one of thousands of riveting images in the five-part documentary The Promised Land, which will air on The Discovery Channel starting Feb. 12. Produced by the BBC in association with Discovery, it was inspired by Nicholas Lemann's powers 1991 book. The series presents an American epic, the migration of more than 5 million blacks from the rural South to the urban North between 1940 and 1970. "The greatest peacetime migration in U.S. history" was largely unnoticed by whites and brought about wrenching changes in our society.

It's ironic that this quintessentially American story should be told by Brits. But BBC producer Anthony Geffen, with directors Edmund Coulthard and Nick Godwin and writer Mark Hay-hurst, have given "The Promised Land" an intensely American rhythm, propelled by an extraordinary score by artists such as jazzman Louis Armstrong, blues singerBessie Smith and rap group Public Enemy and original music by Terence Blanchard, who scored Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." Narrated by Morgan Freeman, each episode opens with an animated graphic based on Jacob Lawrence's classic series of paintings on the Great Migration.

But it's the faces, voices and personalities of the pilgrims themselves that give the series its power and poignance. The only one who appears in both the film and Lemann's book is Uless Garter, 77, a soft-spoken, elegant man who describes the system of sharecropping in Mississippi. It was really an extension of slavery in which black farmers got no wages, merely the promise of sharing in the profits. Usually the share was zero after deductions of the price of staples bought at the plantation store. With a laughter distilled from years of anger, Car-ter says his father was told by a plantation owner that he wasn't going to be paid because "I have to send my son to college."

This system drove many blacks northward, to a legendary Chicago that seemed to call to them in the siren song of train whistles. In one memorable shot a locomotive appears, head-on in slow motion out of the mist, like the famous shot of Lawrence of Arabia emerging from the desert in David Lean's film. Vernon Jarrett, who became a leading journalist, says: "You couldn't do without the train spiritually. It was the vehicle that could take you to heaven before you died. Heaven meaning away from here."

Some, like Uless Carter, went to Chicago by bus. He recalls how the white ticket woman angrily snapped "Chicago!" and wouldn't at first sell him his ticket. The bus races north to the strains of a boogie-woogie piano, cascading chords of optimism. Chicago, says the rich voice of Morgan Freeman, was "Cotton Clubs, not cotton fields." Jobs were plentiful. Uless Garter had two of them, working in one meatpacking plant by day and another by night. The urban promised land is evoked by footage and stills culled from out takes of newsreels, long-unseen files in libraries, churches, schools, historic archives.

As the series proceeds, the music of promise turns to the dissonance of reality. The legal segregation of the South is succeeded by the North's de facto segregation. In the '60s Martin Luther King comes to Chicago to fight for better housing. We see. him duck as a shot rings out. The youth gangs, formed in the 1960s by the children of the migrants, make the projects a battleground. Sharon King, a young mother, moves her dining table into the hallway to avoid the shots that are fired from window to window. James Hinton, who built himself an air-conditioning business, witnesses the shooting of his son by an addict. Hinton says: "Promised land-where? Promised land -- what? Jobs -- where? Now it's the absence of hope, the absence of realizable dreams."

The series lacks the analysis of policy and politics that informs Lemann's book, or any reflection of the debate that still rages over what went wrong to produce that tragic incubus, the underclass. But it brings home the human drama of this 20th-century "flight from Egypt" with compelling force. Uless Garter, who became a Baptist preacher in Chicago, returned, as did many others, to Mississippi. "I tell young people, thank God you didn't come along in my day. You're blessed." This blessing is a tragic paradox, the broken promise that makes "The Promised Land" an unforgettable experience.