A LESSON BEFORE DYING
(director: Joseph Sargent; screenwriters: Ann Peacock/ based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines; cinematographer: Donald M. Morgan; editor: Michael Brown; cast: Don Cheadle (Grant Wiggins), Mekhi Phifer (Jefferson), Cicely Tyson (Tante Lou), Irma Hall (Emma), Brent Jennings (Reverend Ambrose), Lisa Arrindell Anderson (Vivian), Frank Hoyt Taylor (Sheriff Guidry), Cierra Meche(Estelle), Stuart Culpepper (Henri Pichot); Runtime: 105; HBO; 1999)
“What the film lacked was a tension; everything seemed too dry and predictable except for the theme, which was right on the money.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A moving drama played against the backdrop of the segregated Deep South of 1948. An innocent man is given the death sentence and his family fights to have him die with dignity, whereas they have given up any hope for justice and his release.
Jefferson (Phifer) was going fishing, when two friends driving by gave him a ride. They stopped off to buy some liquor but when they didn’t have enough money the white owner refused to give them credit and the two, who gave Jefferson a ride, refused to leave. One of them started walking behind the counter and the owner pulled out a gun killing him, while the other pulled out a gun and shot the owner who fired back killing him. Jefferson was befuddled by this rotten turn of events, viewing the three who were dead and not knowing what to do but stand there. He then reached into the cash register and took the money but a crowd of whites, attracted by the shots, suddenly appeared and did not let him escape.
When the public defender tried unsuccessfully to save him from certain execution with the all-white jury by using the defense plea that “Killing him was like killing a hog it would serve no purpose, even if he were guilty, because he is not a man and is not capable of planning a robbery or a murder.” This gave the film its historical theme. Its theme became that there was no justification for segregation; that the black man is equal to the white, and it is only by keeping the blacks uneducated and inferior could the south still maintain the myth of its separate ways by falsely believing that the whites are superior.
What saves the lesson from being a redundant one is the superb performance of the ensemble cast, all acting in harmony with one another. The two matriarchs are a particularly strong presence and a reminder of how the evil lingerings of slavery has broken up the black family, but that it was the women and the church that tried to hold it together. Emma (Irma) is the godmother who raised Jefferson and Tante Lou (Tyson) raised Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle); Tante Lou worked the cotton fields till her knees were scarred, thereby getting enough money to send him to college. He is now the teacher in the black elementary school, even though he is frustrated by the injustice he sees and wants to go north. He is in love with a light-skinned woman, Vivian (Anderson), who is also a teacher. They plan to marry as soon as her divorce comes through from a husband who abandoned her and left her to bring up their two children alone.
It is Tante Lou who asks him to do what Emma wants, to visit Jefferson in jail and teach him some kind of a lesson before he dies. Something he reluctantly accepts only because he owes her for raising him, otherwise he’d rather not get involved with the whites.
Grant feels like he is just marking time by teaching in such a barren place where all the kids will just become ditch diggers anyway, so it is a waste of time teaching them to read. But this godless man who has walked away from the church, finds his way back to his own people through helping Jefferson.
The bulk of the film is about the developing relationship between the uneducated Jefferson and Grant, the new black educated man from the south. Jefferson is mad at the world, even taking out his anger on the saintly Emma. He is cold to the visits in jail from both Emma and the teacher, even refusing her fried chicken. It was hard enough for Emma to get these visitation privileges and it seems a waste to have it all go for nothing, as she had to ask the favor of the white family of Henri Pichot (Culpepper) to get the rigid Sheriff Guidry (Taylor) to agree. She did it by begging Henri and constantly reminding him of all that she did for his family.
Reverend Ambrose (Jennings) is the counterbalance to the worldly teacher. God, he proclaims, is the one voice no one should abandon. But he can’t reach Jefferson. It is the worldly teacher, the new educated black man in the south, who artfully reaches Jefferson by telling him that he must try to believe in God because the woman who raised him do. It comforts them to know that there is such a place as heaven and that if he seems to be trying to reach there, they will feel reassured that they will all meet in heaven when they die. While his relationship with Vivian, a woman of quality, leads him to eventually see that he has the chance to reach others.
This film adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines has the mark of truth and morality on its side. It evoked a sense of what rural Louisiana was like back in the 1940s for African-Americans and it set the mood for what was to come about in the 1950s and 1960s, as segregation couldn’t be justified anymore by a democratic country. What the film lacked was a tension; everything seemed too dry and predictable except for the theme, which was right on the money.
REVIEWED ON 9/5/2000 GRADE: B- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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