Directed by Doug McHenry
Written by Art Washington
This made-for-cable film originally aired on Showtime and stars Harry Lennix as legendary Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The film begins near the end of Powell’s congressional career, where a young reporter for a Black newspaper (Russell Hornsby) visits Powell in the home Powell is staying at in Bimini to get an interview. That is the framing sequence that we jump back to several times throughout the film, as the majority of the film is told in flashback, as Powell narrates his life story. Starting when Adam is already is an adult, having recently taken over as minister of his father’s church, we see the early stages of his activism, as Adam successfully challenges slumlords in Harlem, and leads a local bus-strike to get more Blacks hired by the bus company. His confrontational style brings him into conflict with his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. (Larry Marshall), who reminds him that “Negroes are basically conservative.” Adam also clashes with other local Black leaders, but his actions bring him accolades from the community. During one demonstration he meets popular jazz singer Hazel Scott (Vanessa Williams) and, despite Adam being married (to first wife Isabelle, played by Naomi Gaskin), they start a romance that quickly leads to Adam getting a divorce and then marrying Hazel.
Adam gets selected to City Council and then, when a new congressional district is drawn in Harlem, he speaks at a rally when he swerves A. Phillip Randolph (Rufus Crawford), the expected candidate, and announces his own candidacy. Adam easily wins, becoming only the 2nd Black congressman in the country, and quickly establishes himself in Washington. This is what the bulk of the film focuses on, showing Adam clashing with conservative congressman, challenging the informal segregation in Washington, and continuing to fight for Civil Rights, even when it clashes with potential allies, like Martin Luther King Jr. Powell’s work puts a strain on his marriage and Hazel eventually divorces him. The film continues with it’s recounting of his career, leading up to his expulsion from Congress, and his legal fight to get his position back.
Lennix is excellent in this role, showing Adam’s charm, cunning, and duplicity. It could be argued that this film glosses over Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s bad side. There are hints at his womanizing, and references to the various political scandals he was involved in, but it doesn’t dwell on those aspects. But this isn’t a documentary, it’s a feature film, and it does a good job of portraying his role in the Civil Rights Movement, in my opinion. I also enjoyed Vanessa Williams as Hazel, she and Harry have good chemistry and work well together on screen. This is a very enjoyable film.