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TV Looks at Life of Flamboyant Black Rep. Adam Clayton Powell

ADAM CLAYTON POWELL PBS, Tuesday, 9-10 p.m. ``American Experience'' documentary on the late congressman. Narrated by Julian Bond. Produced by William Kilberg and Yvonne Smith for WGBH/Boston, WNET/New York, and KCET/Los Angeles. HE puffed sleek cigars and wore ascots and rakish sunglasses for conspicuous daily outings in his smoke-gray Jaguar.

He never missed an opening night on Broadway, with girlfriends or one of three wives on his arm. Intelligent, courageous, and tireless in enunciating the griefs and aspirations of blacks, he was captivating, witty, dashing, hilarious, brilliant - and eventually self-destructive.

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If it were fiction, the story of Adam Clayton Powell (1908-72) might seem far too exaggerated to be believed: The blond baby son of a Baptist preacher, he trained for the ministry, but preferred the late-night charms of Harlem night spots like the Cotton Club. Passing for a white student at Colgate University, he joined a white fraternity, apologizing to fellow blacks after being found out. Elected 12 times to the US House of Representatives - nearly always by a landslide, with little or no campaigning - he pushed through an unprecedented 60 bills in a six-year stretch and controlled $10 billion in disbursements.

As recalled in this biographical portrait on the second season of PBS's ``The American Experience'' series, Powell was dubbed by his parishoners as ``Mr. Jesus'' and by his Harlem constituents as ``Mr. Civil Rights.''

But his charisma was wrapped in enigma, boundless ego, arrogance. Lavishing favors on friends, publicly taunting enemies, and pushing congressional ``perks'' to the limit, Powell was cited for ethics violations in 1966.

``After all,'' he once told a Brooklyn audience, ``I'm a Negro Baptist preacher, you know. And nobody can control a Negro Baptist preacher. Even God sometimes can't.''

The first black congressman from a Northeastern state, he was an inexhaustible gadfly in championing black rights. ``I'm as good as anyone who walks these halls [of Congress],'' he was fond of saying.

`WE needed someone like him to mouth off,'' recalls journalist Roger Wilkins. ``He was God-sent,'' says, a Harlem constituent.

After the ethics citation, he was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Committee on Education and Labor and denied his seat in Congress in a congressional vote later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.

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A series of other legal actions drove him to seek refuge on the island of Bimini, where he drank profusely and accumulated the highest absentee record by a US Congressman in history. He lost his final bid for office by less than 150 votes and died in 1972 at the age of 63.

With the retrospective distance of almost 20 years, the events surrounding Powell's downfall seem even more tragic when measured against successes that seemed almost forgotten by the end. Remembering Powell in this film are first wife, Isabel Washington Powell; former Rep. Shirley Chisholm; the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; journalist Wilkins, and various historians and figures from period.

Julian Bond narrates.

Photos, film clips, news stories and other accounts are woven together in a single, chronological sequence that feels like a roller coaster ride, with its meteoric rise and abrupt fall.

This portrait's strength is the pulling together of so much fact, remembrance, and opinion into a compelling narrative that never lags. If there is a weakness, it is that the film may raise as many questions as it answers. The social, historic and psychological underpinnings of Powell's attitudes for instance, are never explored in depth, nor are the sources of his abundant ego and emotional problems.

Divisive elements in the black civil-rights struggle are similarly glossed over, as is the lesson that Powell's story might hold for today's blacks.

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