Nova: Forgotten Genius



8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6
KCET (Los Angeles)

Add to the list of amazing people we don't know about one Percy Julian, now profiled in a "Nova" episode as a "Forgotten Genius." Of course, we don't know much about many organic research chemists, even ones of such achievement, let alone ones who are black and grandsons of slaves in Alabama.

This is a fine documentary from the mostly Jim Crow early half of the last century, via producers Llewellyn M. Smith and Stephen Lyons, both of whom wrote, while Smith directed. It's told in documentary format, with re-enactments featuring Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Julian.

Julian had drama through his lifetime, often with intransigent white establishments. That was tough enough, but there also was the fiercely competitive world of chemistry. But he had enough determination to compete at the very highest level of the science.

When he finally got a major break and was hired as research director at Glidden Paints in the mid-'30s, he and his crew came up with volumes of uses for the ordinary soy bean -- food oils, plastics, livestock feed, paint products, foam for firefighting. He also left fingerprints on such achievements as progesterone, testosterone, cortisone and the birth control pill.

The creative crew chased all over to research Julian. Inside these two hours is the excitement of his almost-grim commitment to figure out the chemical components. There's a lot of lab scenes here, with a lot of test tubes and curious equipment. They suggest a real-life "CSI," only nobody goes to jail.