Title character Nightjohn (played with admirable power by Carl Lumbly), bought by plantation owner Clel Waller (Beau Bridges), moves into the cabin shared by young Sarny (an effective Allison Jones, narrator for the vidpic), who’s been raised by strong-willed Delie (Lorraine Toussaint).
Nightjohn has secrets, and one of them he shares with Sarny when she shows interest: Not only can he read and write, but he’s here secretly to teach slaves to do the same as a form of liberation. Sarny eagerly studies even as she cares for the youngest Waller (John Herina), acts as go-between for Clel’s bland wife Callie (Kathleen York) and neighboring plantation owner Dr. Chamberlain (Tom Nowicki), Callie’s amour, and keeps her eyes open.
Sarny tells of another forbidden love, this one between Waller’s slave Outlaw (Gabriel Casseus) and Egypt (Monica Ford), of Chamberlain’s plantation. Another point of interest: Clel’s teenage son Jeff (Joel Thomas Traywick), who makes moves to help the slaves.
The story’s important, and young viewers are bound to learn some of the horrors of slavery, observe the mutual loyalty, even spot dissension so early in the white South. Of equal import is the significance in learning to read, which will come as a jolt to some of today’s adolescent watchers.
Production looks tidy, too tidy, with Sharen Davis’ appropriate costumes ever proper, the cotton-picking reasonably comfortable. Sarny’s story, sad as it is, is basically used as a dramatic tool showing the underground reading and writing struggles.
Forced separations, a whipping, two fingers of a hand sliced off and limitless indignities are portrayed, but the program’s worth can’t overcome its artificial look. The sentiment’s strong, Lumbly and Jones are convincing, and a trim Beau Bridges reveals the plantation owner as an heir who’s doing what, for him, comes naturally.
Elliot Davis’ lensing is bright but routine; Dorian Harris’ editing is acceptable. Naomi Shohan’s designs for slave life and owners’ opulence are, er, traditional.