Nightjohn is a powerful and soul-stirring drama set on a nineteenth century Southern plantation.

Twelve-year-old Sarny (Allison Jones) is an ophan being raised by the resourceful Delie (Lorraine Toussaint). Their lives are changed when John (Carl Lumbly), a new slave, arrives to work the fields of the owner (Beau Bridges). He has returned from the north where he was a free man in order to teach his people how to read. "You get some words for yourself and you be free," he tells Sarny.

She is an industrious little girl who practices her letters in the dirt and secretly reads the papers of the slave owner's wife. And by learning numbers, Sarny grasps the economics of slavery. Although the whites rejoice when this black girl consents to be baptized, she is really "saved" the moment she realizes the numbers on display in the church refer to hymns. John expresses what literacy means when he says, "My lesson's got no bottom."

Screenplay writer and director Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger) has made a deeply moving film about black self-empowerment.