Lesson Before Dying (A)
A condemned man's family has lost hope for justice, and wants him to die in dignity. Set in the Deep South in 1948, this drama begins as two friends give Jefferson (Phifer) a ride to go fishing. When they stop to buy liquor the white store-owner refuses the two credit when they haven't enough cash. They refuse to leave; as one walks toward the owner, he pulls a gun, and shoots and kills him. At that, the second man shoots; the owner fires back; both die. Jefferson takes cash from the register just as whites, having heard shots, arrive at the scene.
His lawyer tells the all-white jury, "Executing him would serve no purpose, even if he's guilty. He's not a man, and isn't capable of planning robbery or murder." Thus did southern whites see impoverished blacks, and tout a myth of superiority that "justified" divisiveness. The ensemble cast brings the opposite message, especially two as matriarchs, who show how black women and the church have kept unity. Tante Lou (Tyson) reared Grant Wiggins (Cheadle); picking cotton so long it scarred her knees, she sent him to college. He's frustrated; teaching black children in a barren region where they can only become day-laborers is only marking time. He wonders if he should teach at all. He will marry another teacher, Vivian (Anderson) when she divorces her absent husband; she wants Grant to stay, but he wants to go north.
Emma gets her former white boss, Henri Pichot (Culpepper), to persuade formidable Sheriff Guidry (Taylor) to let her visit Jefferson, who is so mad at the world that, when Emma visits, he refuses food she brings. Reverend Ambrose (Jennings) offers, "No one should ignore God's voice," but can't reach him.
Tante Lou begs Grant to school Jefferson before his execution. Grant wants to avoid whites - such as the jail staff - but at last agrees. Having forsaken church, he finds his way back to his people by schooling Jefferson, which he begins by saying he must try to believe in God, because Emma does. She needs to think they'll be together in Heaven. The uneducated Jefferson and the disillusioned Grant help each other grow and become new, black, educated southern men.
The film evokes African-Americans' rural, 1940s Louisiana, and sets the stage for when segregation could no longer be tolerated by our democracy.
Ann Peacock, based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines
Don Cheadle, Mekhi Phifer, Cicely Tyson, Irma Hall, Brent Jennings, Lisa Arrindell Anderso
1948; Louisiana; biased jury; death penalty; black teachers
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