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Film Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat


The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Directed by John Korty
VCI 01/74 DVD/VHS Feature Film
Not Rated

Jane Pittman is celebrating her 100th birthday in 1962. She lives in the old slave quarters on a plantation outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When Quentin Lerner, a reporter from the East, comes to interview her, she obliges with the story of her life.

Jane recalls her experiences as a slave girl during the Civil War; her re-naming experience one year before the Emancipation Proclamation; her abortive trek to freedom in Ohio; her years working as a field hand; her brief period of happiness as the wife of Joe Pittman, a black cowboy; her sorrow over the murder of Ned, a schoolteacher who tried to establish a school for blacks in the early 1900s; and her mixed feelings about black activism in the civil rights movement.

Jane endures the misery and hardships that come her way repeatedly over the years. Her story reveals the persistence of racial prejudice, evident in the acts of murderous violence that take away loved ones and the patronizing attitudes of the plantation owners she serves most of her life. Yet somehow Jane finds a grace, a certain charm, that makes the most of simple pleasures. Her autobiography is a chronicle of quiet heroism. That is why on one day in 1962 when she makes her final and conclusive stand for freedom, her act has all the emotional force and telling impact of a century of preparation.

Ernest J. Gaines wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1971 and meant it to be an archetypal "life" encompassing the black experience in America from the end of the Civil War to the genesis of the civil rights movement. Winner of nine Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama of the 1973 - 1974 season, this was one of the most acclaimed television movies of all time. Cicely Tyson is unforgettable in the lead role; also good in supporting roles are Odetta, Arnold Wilkerson, Beatrice Winde, Rod Perry, Thalmus Rasulala, and Michael Murphy. John Korty directs from a screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn based on Gaines's novella.

It takes a lifetime to learn about the heights and depths of freedom. Like love, it is a quality of the soul hard to capture in words. This moving film pays homage to the high value of freedom by celebrating the human spirit.


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Reviews and database copyright 1970 2012
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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