PBS programs look at events that unfolded in World War II

Rick's Reviews

Kristin Scott Thomas is one of the subjects in the PBS series “My Grandparents’ War.” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

(KGET) — Two new PBS programs take very different looks at events that transpired during World War II. “My Grandparents’ War” offers personal insight to four well-known actors regarding what their parents’ parents were doing at that time. “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” examines one of the biggest moments in the Civil Rights movement.

Helena Bonham Carter knew that her grandparents—two in France, two in England— helped save lives during World War II. But, she had always wanted to know more details about their actions.

That finally happened when she was selected along with fellow actors Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan to be featured in the four-part PBS series “My Grandparents’ War” scheduled to start at 8 p.m. April 4 on ValleyPBS. They re-trace the footsteps of their grandparents and learn about the challenges they faced during World War II.

The opening episode looks at Carter’s maternal grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejón. He was a Spanish diplomat who defied his government’s orders by issuing visas to help Jewish people escape the Holocaust as the Nazis invaded France. Carter also learns her paternal grandmother, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, took her own stand against anti-Semitism.

Getting more details about her family was a gift for Carter.

“I’d strongly encourage, having done it, that everyone should go pursue what their grandparents, whatever, whether they were part of a war or not,” Carter says. “Because I do feel a strong sense that it was explaining part of my own self to myself, and that we carry our grandparents and what they did somewhere inside us, and that they have a lot to teach us.

“I had sort of vague, sort of an approximation and myths almost of both my parents, the grandparents that we followed, and this just filled in a lot of the detail and brought them very vividly, to me almost like as peers.”

Executive producer Tom Anstiss explains the four actors selected for this initial group started with the quality of work they have done. Then it became a matter of finding interesting stories such as in Rylance’s case as both of his grandfathers were in Japanese prisoner of war camps – one in a civilian camp and one in a military camp.

Anstiss adds that the strength of the series comes from how the histories of the four subjects address unique aspects of World War II.

“It’s a combination of not just family history, but social history and political history.  So, their grandparents’ stories become the prism, if you like, from which they explore untold stories of World War II,” Anstiss says. “I think there is a unique bond between grandchildren and children.  That’s that special kind of relationship.  And that was a real focus of this series.

“The idea behind the series was to explore that special bond through generations.  And we’re certainly in the process of making a second series.  We’re certainly not wedded to the format being solely about World War II.  It’s a prism to explore lots of really interesting chapters of social history, is our view.  And that could be anything from the Civil Rights movement to the Korean War, to the Vietnam War.”

The “American Experience” offering “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard” – set to debut at 9 p.m. March 30 on Valley PBS – looks at the 1946 incident of racial violence by police that led to the awakening of President Harry Truman who desegregated federal offices and the military just two years later. It set the stage for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that jump started the civil rights movement.

The program shows how Isaac Woodard Jr., a decorated African-American World War II veteran, was attacked while still in uniform by South Carolina police as he was taking a bus home. Woodard was permanently blind. The lack of effort in South Carolina to pursue the case resulted in Truman ordering a federal investigation. The sheriff, Lynwood Shull, was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Director Jamila Ephron was doing the principal photography on the production at the height of the George Floyd protests in June.

“It was a very surreal time to be making this particular film, because in many ways the story we are telling is redemptive, but it felt at the moment, like, how have things changed.  So, it was actually a question that came up a lot in our interviews,” Ephron says. “What I think I learned from talking with Sherrilyn Ifill and Ken Mack and people who have been doing civil rights work is that it is a constant battle.

“Thurgood Marshall certainly knew he was engaged in something that started long before he was around and would continue long after.”

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