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A tale of poverty, once removed

Documentary films can be compelling. Films inspired by true stories can be compelling. So does that mean a film inspired by the true story of the making of a documentary can be doubly compelling?

Not really. Our America, which has its premiere tonight on Showtime, is such a movie, and it is a well-intentioned and perfectly watchable one. But it never quite sheds its odd cloud of artificiality; professional actors simply cannot recreate the rough spontaneity of a true documentary, especially one about life in a Chicago ghetto.

Our America tells the story of LeAlan Jones (Roderick Pannell) and Lloyd Newman (Brandon Hammond), black teenagers who in 1993 were recruited by a white producer at National Public Radio to record a sort of diary on tape about their lives in a low-income housing complex on Chicago's South Side.

The resulting NPR documentary won praise, but it also drew unexpected criticism. The producer, David Isay (Josh Charles), was accused of manipulating the boys to get the kinds of negative stories white America expects: the "tourist in the ghetto" viewpoint, as one character in the film calls it.

The boys were shaken by the backlash, but not long afterward, when a 5-year-old in the neighborhood was dropped from a window on the 14th floor by other children because he refused to steal candy for them, the two young reporters again headed out with their microphones. That time they won a Peabody Award.

The television tale is absorbing, largely because nothing is feel-good simple; the boys' well-meaning efforts to tell the ghetto story are attacked by other blacks who are themselves concerned about breaking poverty's grip. But the scenes that try to recreate the boys' interviews with residents of the complex aren't particularly convincing; they make you long for the real thing. So Our America has to settle for "interesting" rather than "powerful."

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