The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Director: John Korty.
Starring: Cicely Tyson (Jane Pittman), Eric Brown (Jimmy Age 7), Richard Dysart (Master Bryant), Joel Fluellen (Unc Isom), Will Hare (Cluveau), Katherine Helmond (Lady at House), David Hooks (Colonel Dye), Elinora B. Johnson (Mary), Warren Kenner (Job), Dudley Knight (Trooper Brown), Derrick Mills (Little Ned), Michael Murphy (Quentin), Valerie Odell (Ticey), Odetta (Big Laura), Rod Perry (Joe Pittman).
Awards: Nine Emmy awards.
Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines.
The main character is fictitious, but this tales of the life of a 110-year-old slave, covers a great deal of black history from slavery during the Civil War, through the segregated days of Jim Crow with its segregated facilities (such as colored and white drinking fountains), to the start of the civil rights movement in the 1960's.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Miss Jane celebrates her 110th birthday. Young Jimmy comes in and asks her if he can speak to her. The two of them go outside. Jimmy and another fellow want her to help them with the Civil Rights Movement. They want her to go with them to the court house. If she will do it, then many other blacks will come forward. Jimmy says they are going to have one of the black girls drink out of the white only drinking fountain at the court house. Jane tells the guys that the folks around this area are not ready for anything like marching down to the court house. Jimmy says no matter what, the girl is going to drink from that fountain tomorrow.
A reporter lands at the airport for Baton Rogue. He takes a ride out to a huge house. He asks the white people there where Miss Jane Pittman is. The man tells him where her little house is and he immediately starts walking there. He meets Jane on the porch and explains that he is doing a feature story on her for his magazine. Her friend Lena doesn't trust the reporter and she tells Jane that she doesn't have to tell the man anything, if she doesn't want to. Jane, however, seems to want to talk. The reporter says he would like her to tell him about the way things were in her past. Jane gets tired and has her friend tell the reporter to come back tomorrow for her answer.
Jimmy and six other blacks walk to the courthouse. The young lady with them is going to drink out of the white only fountain, but the police are there to stop her. Several arrests are made.
The reporter comes out again to speak with Jane. She tells him about Jimmy, who is the son of her friend. She then starts talking about the Civil War.
Flashback. Jane shows the reporter two stones. The reporter has no idea of their significance. Jane says to him: "You don't know a whole lot, do you?"
She remembers Confederate soldiers arriving at the plantation where Jane, as a young slave, worked. She says the soldiers were half dead. Back then she was called Ticey. She is told by the woman of the mansion to go get the soldiers some water. Ticey goes from soldier to soldier with the water. Ticey says: "These are the same ones, mind you, who told their peoples when the war was getting started: 'keep my food warm. I'm going to kill me a few Yankees and be home for supper.' "
A messenger arrives to say that that Yankees are just right down the road. The Rebs take off. Ticey hears rifle fire. The Yankees ride up. The woman of the mansion offers the commander of the group if he would like some brandy wine. The officer says: "Thank you." At the well, a tall Yankee comes up to talk with Ticey. He says his name is Corporal Lewis Brown. He doesn't like the name Ticey, saying it's a slave name. He reels off a number of good English names and Ticey selects the name Jane. He says, okay, then from now on, she will be Jane. Lewis also tells her that if anyone gives her any trouble, she should come up to Ohio and tell him about it.
One day Master Bryant calls the slaves all together. He tells them about the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in the Confederate states. He says they can all stay, but he can't pay them anything, since he has nothing himself. Or they all can go. If they stay, he will be as fair as he has always been with them. The slaves don't say anything in front of the master, but they sure talk a lot when they are alone. Jane says she's heading for Ohio.
A number of the slaves take out for the north. They walk for days in the swamps, always on the lookout for "patty rows" (?) who will kill a freeman as quick as he will a runaway slave. Big Laura, "as tough as any man", shows them the way. They decide to sleep in a vacant barn for the night. During the night the "patty rows" attack and start killing them. Big Laura is able to brain a number of them with a big stick, but she is outnumbered and hit over the head. Jane and little Ned, the son of Big Laura, hide themselves. They are the only survivors of the raid.
In the morning, Jane grabs the rocks of iron and flint used to start fires, gets Big Laura's supplies, grabs Ned and starts out again for Ohio. Along the way they go to a house and get balled out by a very angry and hateful white woman. She blames the two children for the devastation brought to her by the coming of the Yankee soldiers. She does give them some water, but tells Jane that she hates them. She shouts: "Look at what you done to me!" Jane and Ned get away from her.
They come upon a road and a black man gives them a ride in his wagon. The man tells Jane that they will have to cross the mighty Mississippi River. Two southern white men ride up. The black man has to adopt a submissive way of talking and says he's taking the children to one of the big homes in the area. Satisfied, the white men move on. Down the road a ways, the driver puts the kids off his wagon without any explanation.
Jane and Ned keep walking until they come to the Mississippi River. Walking some more they come to a place where a boat lets people off and takes on other people. Jane and Ned, however, don't have a nickel each to take the ride. So they have to continue walking. Finally, they come to the Dye plantation.
Back to the present. Jane tells the reporter they stayed there for what became twelve long, hard years. The reporter returns to his hotel and listens to the recorded tapes he took of Jane's story. The next day he goes to see Jane again.
Flashback. Jane says she was about twenty-two or twenty-three years old and still working on the Dye plantation. She had to do very hard work cutting sugar cane in the fields. She says colored politicians would come around and sign them up for votes, but Reconstruction did not last and soon both white and black carpetbaggers came to take from the South what the soldiers had missed. They had a school where they could go at night, that is until the night riders burned down the school. They also lynched the teacher.
Colonel Dye is getting crazier by the day. Ned starts teaching the people to read and write. He also forms a "Negro Rights Committee" to help the blacks. The vigilantes hear about the committee and start watching him. One night the night riders come to Jane's cabin demanding that she tell them where Ned is. She says she doesn't know where he is. They slap her around and knock her to the floor. When Ned comes in, her sees her bruised face. Jane tells him that he has to leave or he will be killed. He should go to New Orleans and then take a boat to Kansas. Ned says he doesn't want to leave mama, the name he uses for Jane. Jane packs two saddle bags with things Ned will need for his trip. Ned starts slowly walking away from the cabin he knew as home. Jane cries after he has gone.
1875 or 1876. One day a handsome man comes riding into the cabin area. He tips his hat to Jane. They meet and soon become attached to each other. His name is Joe Pittman.
1877, July. Jane gets a letter from Ned. He says he is almost ready to come home. Times were hard for him in Kansas. He is going to college and says he will be home soon. Joe tells Jane that they are going to be leaving the Dye plantation to start out life on their own.
Jane and Joe go to speak with Col. Dye to tell him they are leaving. The problem is that he doesn't want to lose Joe because he is so good at breaking and training horses. He can't convince Joe to stay, so he tells him that Joe owes him $50 dollars. Joe was in some trouble with the KKK and the colonel had to spend the money to get him out of trouble. Joe and Jane sell nearly everything they have to get $50 dollars. When they have the money, they proudly bring it to the colonel. Then the colonel demands $5 dollars more for the interest on the money. So Jane gives up her wedding ring to the colonel.
It takes ten days to walk to east Texas and the Clyde Ranch. They hire Joe as a horse trainer. They are very happy as they get their new cabin. One day Jane is scared when she sees a white horse that she thinks has the eyes of a devil horse. She is afraid the horse will kill her Joe. Jane goes to a fortune teller. She comes away convinced that the horse will kill Joe. This is why, one early morning, Jane opens a corral gate and chases the white horse out. Joe comes running to stop her, but the horse has gone. Joe gets on a hose and takes off after the white horse, despite Jane yelling for Joe to let the horse be. Later the white horse comes running back dragging Joe's dead body behind him.
Back to the present. Jane says that no man ever took the place of Joe Pittman, even though she was with a few men after that..
Flashback. Turn of the century. It's been 20 years since Jane saw Ned, but when he came back she knew immediately it was him. Ned brings his wife and child with him. Ned and Jane are ecstatic to see each other. Ned talks about his experiences in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. And now he has come home to be a school teacher.
Ned starts teaching at his school. Two white men on horses are watching him from outside. The Cajun, Cluveau, is fishing with Jane. He warns her that he has been hired to kill her son. Jane asks him if he could kill her son and he says yes. He has already killed twelve men, black and white.
Ned is going to speak to the people involved with him and his project besides the river. Jane comes running up to Ned to tell him that he has to leave. Ned absolutely refuses to leave. He begins his speech to the people. He says both good and bad are found in all men, both white and black. Ned adds that ignorance is largely responsible for the situation of the blacks in the United States. A white man in a boat listens to the speech. Ned says he wants his children to be proud they are black. The guy rows away as soon as the speech is over. Ned walks over to Jane and says: "I'm going to die, mama."
Ned and a friend are coming home with lumber in a wagon pulled by mules. Cluveau steps out of the woods and onto the road. He tells Ned to get down from the wagon. Ned tells his friend to take the lumber and continue their project. He steps down from the wagon and the friend rides away. Ned starts to walk toward Cluveau, who shoots Ned in the leg. Cluveau's orders are to make Ned crawl first, but Ned just screams: "No!" Cluveau shoots him in the chest, killing Ned.
Back to the present. On the radio is the news that Teddy Kennedy may run for the 1962 Democratic nomination for president. The reporter goes out to talk to Jane again. Jane asks Lena when she (Jane) first came to this place. Lena believes it was 1925 during the reign of the would-be dictator, Huey Long, the Kingfish.
Flashback. Jane remembers back to 1927 when she came out to watch the field workers. She was around 70 at this time. She remembers the good times they had, like playing baseball.
Lena had a baby boy named Jimmy. People would ask him: "Is you the one, Jimmy? Is you the one?"
Jimmy is now a small boy. He talks with Jane about Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. She loves the Dodgers team because of Robinson. Jane also talks to Jimmy about the great black boxer Joe Lewis. Jimmy goes away to school and Jane doesn't see him for ten long years.
Back to the present. Then one day he comes back home. He comes to the church to talk about the civil rights movement. He asks for help from the parishioners. The reverend doesn't want Jimmy to talk, but Jane tells him to shut-up and listen to Jimmy. But the reverend is too conservative and Jimmy gives up and apologizes for disturbing the church and walks out.
Jane is feeling poorly and a white friend is driving her to the hospital. On the side of the road she sees a burning bus with a sign: "Freedom Coalition, 1962". This bothers Jane a great deal. Back home, the boss of the area speaks to the blacks. He says there will be no demonstrating on his place. Anyone unhappy about this can leave.
The reporter listens to his tapes, while typing comments. He gets a telephone call from his boss in New York City. The reporter is being send to cover the space launch of astronaut John Glenn. He goes over to see Jane and explains that the has to go see John Glenn get launched into space. He is pretty upset about having to leave his present assignment dealing with the life of Jane Pittman. She asks the reporter if he got what he came for and the young fellow says yes. As the reporter is leaving, a couple of police cars coming from the opposite direction with their sirens on pass by him. The reporter turns his car around and follows the police to Bayonne.
The boss says to the black people that they should stay in their quarters today because there's been some trouble. Jimmy has been killed. Nobody knows who shot him. Jane says she's going to Bayonne for Jimmy. The boss says that she ain't going. Jane says today they arrested a black woman for trying to drink water from a white only fountain. And they killed her Jimmy. She's going.
Jane arrives at the courthouse in a pick-up truck. There are six people with her. For the last part of her trip, she walks all by herself over to the white only fountain and drinks from it. The police there don't stop her. Then she walks back to the pick-up truck. The reporter arrives just as Jane returns to the pick-up truck. The truck slowly moves out. There are lots of black people now following the truck and Miss Jane Pittman.
Jane died on July 19, 1962, five months after the last of the recordings were made, at the age of 110.
Good movie, but it should have been a mini-series. Two hours is not enough time to cover the one-hundred year period between 1862 and 1962. The Civil War is just barely touched on. The same is true of Reconstruction. Maybe history is not discussed much because Jane lived in such isolated places on former plantations mostly. And thinking over the film, except for the killing of Ned, there really weren't any really egregious injustices done to Jane. In other movies dealing with black history subjects, some very serious, very upsetting things happen to the blacks, but not in this film. I did enjoy the film, but didn't get a good feel for what was happening in black history, 1862-1962. (My wife liked the film too.)
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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