The last three weeks have confirmed me as a loyal fan, visitor and supporter of the local library. I go about every other day for either books, movies, music or WI-FI. I can also look forward to author talks, which are scheduled at times, though I’m not sure how often. I was browsing in the movie DVDs the other day and picked up a movie I had never seen nor heard about. It’s an old movie, made in 1999 by HBO, and called, A Lesson Before Dying. At least three of the actors are well-known: Don Cheadle, Mehki Phifer and Cicely Tyson. The movie is based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In Louisiana in 1948, a young black man gets dragged by friends into a store holdup. Everything goes straight to hell, and the young man is the only one of four to come out alive, but soon sentenced by the town’s white leaders to die in the electric chair. The defense attorney in trying to save the man, Jefferson from death, and in arguing the case equates the black man to a hog that knows no better.
Jefferson, as well as his old grandmother are brutalized by these words, and in weeks to come, he begins to almost believe that terrible equation made in a court of law. Losing at last his dignity he faces death. The school teacher for the black children in town (Don Cheadle) is chosen to spend the last days with Jefferson, reaffirming the young man’s humanity and self-respect.
The novel, as well as the movie (teleplay) are about a horrible injustice orchestrated by the white leaders of that time. To be black in Louisiana in 1948 and to get caught with three dead people, one of them a white storeowner, well the result was preordained and certainly tragic. One reviewer on IMBd saw it this way: ‘a great american movie. typical american justice system. typical american mentality, typical american prejudice, typical american ignorance. typical american emotions. this is the all american movie of the year.’
Production design is particularly authentic, and the local settings, the right-on accents typical of that area, the clothes, all of that top notch. The actors are one by one achingly believable and you almost forget they are thespians recalling lines memorized beforehand. In my opinion, both book and movie should be required study for all modern schoolchildren. It’s that rich in value morally and historically.
The TV movie went right past me in 1999, but my television set was probably off. Despite the passing of years the story has not lost a grain of its relevance.