Quantum Leap – Black on White on Fire [3.7]

Sam leaps into Ray Harper, a young black medical intern who is engaged to Susan, a young white woman, just as the Watts riots break out in 1965. He desperately tries to help people medically even as he does what he can to diffuse tensions amongst his loved ones, especially when Ray’s angry brother Lonnie threatens Susan. Tragically, Lonnie is killed by the police, but terrible events motivate Ray and Susan to stay in Watts in an effort to bring something positive to the community.

Written by Deborah Pratt . Directed by Joe Napolitano.

Previous Episode:  Miss Deep SouthNext Episode: The Great Spontini

Black on White on Fire is certainly a different sort of episode of Quantum Leap.  Most episodes I’d call a blend of character-based comedy and light drama, with a dose of science fiction.  Black on White on Fire is a much more intense affair, with barely a trace of light-heartedness and only the science fiction necessary for the premise.  Sam finds himself in the midst of an intense window in American history, where an atmosphere of dread hangs over everything.  Even more than Vietnam, the historical setting this time around is overwhelming, and Sam spends the entire episode struggling to keep his head above water.  

With the sensitivity of the subject matter and the earnest touch that the episode strives for, there’s quite the risk that things could come across as quite out of date. But for the most part, the episode avoids these pitfalls (though I don’t know if I’m always the best judge of such things).  The characters feel authentic and the situation is treated as something that is miserable and painful and which has no easy solutions. 

The episode strikes a good balance between bleak and hopeful.  The violence is painful to see, and the episode gives us effective glimpses of things like police brutality and entrenched hatred.  Sam’s mission ultimately is to not to fix the problem (as he even believes for a moment) or even saving specifically saving someone’s life (though he does) but rather to change Ray and Susan’s fate so that they stay in Watts, devoting their life to helping the neighbourhood.  It’s just enough positivity to make it believable that he leaps at the end, but not so much as to demean or diminish the very real difficulties that people faced (and continue to face).

When did Do the Right Thing Come out? vs. Driving Miss Daisy

With all that said, there are a few moments that some modern audiences may wince at.  Papa John once defends Girlie, saying she’s not a racist just because she’s white—some aspects of critical race theory would disagree.  And for a short time, the emotional focus of the episode is on Girlie struggling with the fact that black people judge her for the color of her skin.  It’s obviously meant to a moment of understanding for her and for the audience, but it would no doubt rub some people the wrong way.  Fortunately, it doesn’t remain a major part of the story for very long.

Black on White on Fire is supported by a whole range of solid and believable performances.  CCH Pounder, Corie Heninger, Ron Taylor and the rest of the guest cast all bring the goods.  Gregory Millar in particular digs deep in his portrayal of Lonnie Harper, convincing of us of the pain and anger behind his actions.  He makes Lonnie’s actions sympathetic even as we see how unjustifiable they are.  And of course anchoring it all are solid turns from Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, who play desperate and haggard as the situation deserves.   

Cast Notes
Ron Taylor (Papa David Harper) was a Klingon chef in a couple o fepisodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Marc Alaimo (Captain Paul Brewster) is famous for playing Gul Dukat, also on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, as well as a number of other characters across the Star Trek franchise.

CCH Pounder (Mama Harper) is an actress whose name I recognize, but I’m not sure why. Scrolling through her credits I see she played Amanda Waller in some episodes of Justice League Unlimited, and was on ER for some time (although I didn’t really watch that). She also co-starred with Scott Bakula in NCIS: New Orleans.

Who and Where is Dr. Sam Beckett?
Sam is Ray Harper, in Watts, Los Angeles, Caliornia, from August 11-12, 1965.

What does Sam have to do?
Ultimately, Sam seems to have to convince Ray Harper and his fiancee Susan to stay in Watts after they marry, in order to make a positive contribuion to the community.

What do we learn about Sam Beckett?
Sam is

What do we know about Al?

What about the experiment?

God or Time or Something

“Oh Boy”
The catchphrase

Sam’s Complicated Love Life
Sam leaps into kissing Susan Brewster. He also finds himself kissed by Sheri at a party.

The Many Loves of Al Calavicci
I t

Other Observations
• Sam leaps right into a romantic situation! Awkward! But…he doesn’t seem to be too bothered.

• Unusually, the teaser ends with a freeze frame, similar to the teaser at the end of the previous episode.

• Good line from Lonnie: “You think that’s what Mama and I busted our asses for all these years? To break honky barriers?”

• Al sums it up: “It started when the first black couldn’t find a job or live where he wanted to. It started when the first baby went hungry. Or the first cop hassled some guy just because he was black. This match has been burning a long time, Sam.”

• The fire and maybe some of the riot look like stock footage, but it’s well edited in.

• One of the only light-hearted lines in the episode comes after they talk about not having a key to the clinic: “One thing we don’t need in Watts right now is a key.”

Sam Leaps To
The Great Spontini

Favorite Dialogue
I think my favorite is when Sam responds to Ray’s mother and Ray’s fiancée are debating about whether Ray can be not just good but great if he stays in Watts…

You know, um… sometimes… sometimes doing good is more important.

Special thanks, by the way, to this site for the episode transcriptions.

The Best Moment
The whole episode is a pretty solid level of quality, but I think I liked the sequence of Sam trying race through the streets to get to Susan, having to dodge cops and rioters, and so on.

Previous Episode:  Miss Deep SouthNext Episode: The Great Spontini

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