Truth or Dare

All theories must converge: James Belushi (left) and Gregory Hines as journalists in Who Killed Atlanta's Children?Photo: Mike Courtney

So, according to Spin magazine and Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? (Sunday, July 16; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime), the Klan did it. At least one of the many McCullough brothers, all of them night riders in the Invisible Empire’s ragtag army, bragged about killing some black children in a tape recording of a wiretap arranged by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, inspired by a tip from an undercover informant for the intelligence division of the Atlanta cops. And the GBI had other evidence pointing in the same direction that the lawyers for Wayne Williams should have seen but didn’t – because the GBI not only mysteriously closed this file but also destroyed it.

Not that Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? is suggesting Wayne Williams was innocent. But he certainly was convenient. He was black and he was weird. (His brief appearance in this cable movie, as played by Clé Bennett, is one of its creepiest moments.) Convicted in 1982 for killing two adults, on the basis of some pretty flimsy fiber evidence, he was blamed as well for the disappearance, from parks, streets, schools, buses, bridges, and movie theaters, and the slaughter, by bludgeoning, stabbing, lynching, drowning, and/or mutilation, of the 29 children, mostly boys and all black, whose names and faces on a special-task-force “Missing and Murdered” list embarrassed Atlanta and scandalized the nation. “The City Too Busy to Hate” had been turned into a garrison state of paranoia and denial, whose politicians worried about losing convention dollars to a serial-killer panic while its law-enforcement agencies squabbled about jurisdiction and leaks. And a magnet for bounty hunters, soothsayers, supercops, and paramilitaries. And a war zone of helicopters, drive-bys, gun sales, and conspiracy theories.

Of course, the conspiracy theories featured Nazis and the Klan. But they also included diabolical scientists, organized child molesters, snuff-movie-makers, and psychopathic Vietnam vets as well as turf-poaching drug dealers killing off the competition’s couriers, kidnappers looking for slave labor, even alien abduction and satanic cults. And there were those guardians of the public order who insisted that the missing children must be “runaways.” Or “retards” who didn’t know where they really were. Or hustlers and prostitutes who just got what they deserved and should have expected. Or maybe their own parents had disposed of them.

Among the many problems associated with the Atlanta child murders is that they started before anybody, even the parents, noticed that something sinister was going on. And there were more of them than the 29 on the “M & M” list, maybe nearly 70. And there were names on the list that didn’t fit any of the patterns the task force was pushing, and names omitted that did fit those patterns. And there are at least 16 and maybe 35 more names that should have been added to the list after Wayne Williams went to prison for life, but couldn’t be because there was no longer any such list – the case, once the public-relations crisis was over, had been prematurely closed. Nor does it seem conceivable that any single person could have committed all the murders. And so perhaps each of the conspiracy theories has its own dreadful portion of truth.

Thus Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? is one of those truths. It picks up in 1986, the year after Abby Mann’s tendentious mini-series The Atlanta Child Murders had cast equal prime-time doubt on the trial of Wayne Williams and the Atlanta political Establishment (the mayor and the police commissioner were both black). It is based on the personal experience of producer Rudy Langlais, who was at the time an editor of Spin magazine and who for some reason permitted his name to be changed so that Gregory Hines in the docudrama is called Ron Larson. Nor was the reporter who accompanied him to Atlanta, played by James Belushi, really named Pat Laughlin. Whatever their reasons, the on-site tension between the two, at first mildly amusing and later unfortunately distracting, seems more characteristic of relations between a TV producer and his correspondent than between editor and reporter, maybe because editors usually stay put at the office, where it’s easier to know everything.

But the movie is less about Hines and Belushi than it is about the mothers of the children, understandably far from satisfied; the cover-up of the GBI’s Klan investigation, as embodied in the slick snarl of Aidan Devine as Agent Jack Johnson; and the guilt-stricken second thoughts of a retired Atlanta cop, Sean McCann as Melton, who drops his own notes and confidential police files in a knapsack outside the motel-room door of Spin’s editorial team. In the bickering, bullying, stalking, and shredding that follow, Hines and Belushi must rely on Melton for names, on Assemblywoman Mildred Glover (Lynda Gravatt) for entry into black neighborhoods of the aggrieved, and on the problematic “Dave” (Eugene A. Clark) to lead them through the Atlanta underworlds of politicians and police, like Virgil leading Dante by the nose on an escalator down to hell.

Although we are reminded by Charles Robert Carner, who directed Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? from his own script, of all the questions that have never been answered, we will get no satisfaction – nor did Wayne Williams get a new trial – even after Spin publishes its story and Jack Johnson suffers in a courtroom the usual convenient amnesia. Maybe we never will. It’s too messy, and has, besides, come to symbolize a sort of worldwide open season on black children and black skin. If this film moves you, please read Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child (Random House). Bambara was obsessed with the case, knew many of the mothers, mourned all of the children, and managed to create something grand and grueling, exhaustive and exalted.

Those Bones Are Not My Child is at once the Atlanta novel Tom Wolfe didn’t write, a bill of indictment of an entire political culture, and a broadloom weave of lost children and child sacrifice – from Abraham and Isaac to Agamemnon and Iphigenia to the Prodigal Son and the Gingerbread Man. You will want to save all the children in her pages from this free-fire zone of teenage mothers who read True Confessions while their babies drink formula stretched with Kool-Aid, while all around the Defenders of the White Seed wear T-shirts proclaiming that gun control is hitting your target, and heroic Zala is last seen at target practice with a sound-suppressing .22-caliber Walther automatic.

This must be cable television’s week for rethinking Abby Mann. And in fact, David W. Rintels’s screenplay for the mini-series Nuremberg (Sunday and Monday, July 16 and 17; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT) is only a fraction as self-righteous as Mann’s screenplay for Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg, although the “Eureka!” realization of military shrink Gustav Gilbert (Matt Craven), after his prison-cell chats with Goering (Brian Cox), Speer (Herbert Knaup), and the rest of the huff-and-puff Nazis – “Evil is an absence of empathy” – is almost as simpleminded as Mann in his prime. Instead of Spencer Tracy as the U.S. judge at the very first war-crimes tribunal, we get Alec Baldwin as the U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson on leave from the Supreme Court and apparently about to be unfaithful to his wife by falling into the arms of his secretary (Jill Hennessy). Nevertheless, as in real life and Stanley Kramer, Goering kills himself before the hangman can, while Speer gets off with twenty years, after which he wrote best-sellers.

I shouldn’t be cynical. The question of “crimes against humanity” has bedeviled us since ancient Greece, through chivalry, unto poisoned gas in World War I, death camps and genocide in World War II, My Lai, and Sarajevo. As Telford Taylor, who was a member of the American team at Nuremberg before he became a professor of law at Columbia, reminded us years later in a book called Nuremberg and Vietnam, no rules to restrain the conduct of war will ever be observed if victory seems to depend upon the breach of them. At Nuremberg, the victorious Allies at least tried to come up with a civilized response to unimaginable atrocities. My own uncle, as a young lawyer in the Judge Advocate Corps, defended Japanese accused of similar crimes in the Tokyo trials – and, to his own death, was never satisfied with anybody’s thinking on the subject. So, of course, we need to keep on thinking.

Still, both Nuremberg, the mini-series, and Judgment, the equally long Hollywood movie, are star turns for actors as monsters and actors as victims. So we are invited to relish the very excesses of a Goering, to excruciate in the intellectualizing of a Speer, and to be appalled by the evidence (eyewitness, documentary, and candid-camera) presented. And yet the most powerful passage in all these cable-television hours is four minutes toward the end of Part One. They are the real thing – images committed to film upon the Allied liberation of the camps. The look in the courtroom on Jill Hennessy’s face is unbearable. Not a word is spoken.

Truth or Dare