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First there was Sidney Poitier

This revelation may shock some people, especially those who read this space regularly, but I'm willing to bare my soul, anyway.

Sometimes, even black folks aren't interested in Black History Month TV.

Certainly, TV shows such as Roots, Africans in America, I'll Make Me a World and Buffalo Soldiers have proven there's fodder for great drama and eye-opening documentaries in black America's proud fight for equality.

But too often, well-intentioned Black History Month shows are like castor oil; good for you, but a little hard to swallow.

Living up to my main mandate _ watching bad TV so you don't have to _ here are some recommendations on Black History Month programming that will enlighten and entertain.

Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light, 8 p.m. Wednesday, WEDU-Ch. 3: At a time when rap artists such as Ice Cube and Master P are developing their own movies, it's tough to remember the trail he blazed in the 1950s and '60s.

But there was a time when a tally of black movie stars might have listed just one name: Sidney Poitier.

He remains the only black person to have won the Academy Awards' highest acting honor (black men and women have won supporting actor and actress awards), which says as much about Hollywood apartheid as Poitier's talent. The achievement also positioned him as a groundbreaking artist worthy of his unofficial title as the Jackie Robinson of America's film industry.

"His stardom brought a lot of people out of the closet as admirers of the beauty of the black person," James Earl Jones says during One Bright Light, an hourlong installment of PBS' American Masters documentary series. Philip Rose, producer of Poitier's landmark play and film, A Raisin in the Sun, put it another way: "The phrase "Black is beautiful' _ he was the personification of that phrase."

Directed by Lee Grant, his co-star in 1967's explosive In the Heat of the Night, PBS' biography centers on extensive conversations with the man himself _ starting with his life growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas and ending with his role in Showtime's 1997 movie Mandela and De Klerk.

The device works, treating viewers to Poitier's tale told his way, emphasizing his emergence as one of the first "noble Negroes" _ stars playing idealized black characters as smart and accomplished as their white counterparts.

His first big splash, a co-starring role with Tony Curtis in 1958's The Defiant Ones, set the standard, leading to an Oscar for 1963's Lilies of the Field. As poised and dignified as his characters, the actor nevertheless was pressured by Hollywood bigwigs into doing 1959's Porgy and Bess, a film featuring stereotypical black characters.

By 1967, Poitier was the top actor in Hollywood, scoring an amazing trifecta with In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner all in the same year.

The characters were powerful challenges to past stereotypes, from Heat's educated Philadelphia police officer solving a murder in the South to the earnest doctor seeking to marry Spencer Tracy's white daughter in Dinner.

Unfortunately, Dinner also proved Poitier's downfall, convincing many of his black fans he was too willing to play white liberals' ideal Negro; accomplished, but cut off from black culture and realistic race issues.

If there's a downside here, it's that covering Poitier's expansive, 50-year career requires Grant to move at breakneck speed _ leaving time for little more than brief clips from his best movies (the bio's complimentary tone also precludes talk of recent duds, such as 1992's Sneakers).

Still, One Bright Light showcases an actor that paved the way for names such as Denzel, Wesley, Whoopi and Eddie; a pioneering artist whose career neatly embodies hopes for racial and artistic equality yet to be reached.

Civil Rights Martyrs: Free at Last, 9 p.m., Feb. 10, The Learning Channel: Around this time, viewers will likely be flooded with information about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and George Washington Carver.

But how many people have heard of Emmett Till, Andrew Goodman or Cynthia Wesley?

All of them were killed during incidents directly related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s _ Till, a Chicago teen, was murdered for his alleged saucy comments to a white woman in Mississippi; Goodman was one of three Mississippi civil rights workers killed for registering black voters; Wesley was among four young girls murdered when their Alabama church was firebombed in 1963.

TLC's two-hour documentary sheds light on the lives of these little-known heroes, people who didn't get any medals, but gave their lives during the war to end segregation.

Narrated by The Practice's Steve Harris, the show weaves interviews with notables such as Jesse Jackson and Myrlie Evers-Williams with old film footage and dramatic re-creations to outline poignant portraits.

For anyone tempted to shortchange the courage of those who fought for civil rights in the '60s, this program enlightens _ transforming what could have been a dreary history lesson into a riveting revelation.

Little Richard, 8 p.m, Feb. 20, WFLA-Ch. 8.

Little Richard has been a punchline for years, a flamboyant singer given to wearing makeup onstage and hosting orgies offstage. Vacillating between his religious roots and rock 'n' roll heart, Richard Wayne Penniman has blazed a unique _ some might say bizarre _ trail through pop music history.

But NBC's biopic, executive produced by the man himself, is serious business.

The movie traces Richard's life from his youth in Macon, Ga., to his 1962 decision to sing rock 'n' roll again after a few years spent as a preacher and gospel singer.

The actor Leon, who emerged as the best thing in NBC's Temptations miniseries as troubled singer David Ruffin, turns in another standout performance _ balancing Richard's legendary playfulness with the iron will of a man born to be a star.

Richard helped define rock 'n' roll with a string of hits: Good Golly, Miss Molly, Tutti, Frutti, Long Tall Sally and more.

But we also see his troubled relationship with a macho father embarrassed by his son's penchant for makeup and high notes. The film also flirts with Richard's legendary proclivities for cross-dressing, group sex and high living.

Director Robert Townsend drenches everything in the atmosphere that powered his doo-wop film The Five Heartbeats, to great success. And for those wondering where everyone from Elvis to Prince developed their in-your-face attitude, Little Richard provides powerful explanation.

Here are a few other shows to watch for:

The Color of Friendship, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Disney Channel: Tensions surface when a white South African exchange student is placed with a black congressman's family in 1977.

Showtime Black Filmmaker Showcase, 10 p.m. Feb. 7, Showtime: Short films from five young black filmmakers are aired, as part of the pay cable channel's monthlong Black History Month effort.

Biography: Forever Ella, 9 p.m. Feb. 14, A&E: The cable channel's Biography series offers a two-hour look at jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Tampa Bay's Dream for a New Millennium, 7 p.m. Feb. 15, Bay News 9: The cable newschannel takes a look at local black history and contemporary issues, hosted by anchor Susan Casper.

Freedom Song, 7 p.m. Feb. 27, TNT: Danny Glover is a father who finds the relationship with his son jeopardized by his work in the civil rights movement.

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