HBO has yet another winner with its latest original movie, based on the critically acclaimed book by Ernest J. Gaines about a man awaiting his execution in 1948 Louisiana. “A Lesson Before Dying” which made both the New York Times bestseller list and Oprah’s book club picks, is a complex but expertly told parable about salvation and strength of spirit. Unlike “Dead Man Walking,” this death row drama is not about a guilty man coming to terms with his life, but rather an innocent man coming to terms with his death.
Mekhi Phifer stars as Jefferson, a young field hand who one fateful day accepts a ride from a pair of locals only to see his life ruined in an instant. The only surviving witness to a triple homicide, Jefferson is subsequently accused and convicted of the crime.
His lawyer, in a desperate plea to spare his life, begs the all-white jury not to send Jefferson to the chair, comparing the idea to sending a hog to its death. Of all of the injustices Jefferson has recently suffered, this is the ultimate humiliation. It doesn’t sway the jury anyway, and Jefferson is sentenced to die.
His godmother Miss Emma (Irma P. Hall), a commanding matriarch, realizes she is powerless in stopping his death but is determined that Jefferson win back his self-respect before his execution. She and friend Tante Lou (Cicely Tyson) enlist Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle), the local teacher, to take Jefferson on as his pupil.
As Grant sees it, when a white man is killed, a black man has to die for it. That’s just the way of the South.
Grant originally left town to escape this kind of oppression, only to return after college to find that little had changed. On the verge of leaving again, Tante Lou reminds him of his sense of duty, to her, to the community, and to Jefferson.
To Grant, the experience is an insult to his education and his intelligence; to Jefferson, it’s basically a waste of time. But the two have a common link in their anger, and this alienation slowly gives way to a poignant dialogue.
The visits to the jail become cathartic for both men. Not only does Grant learn to respect Jefferson, he earns newfound respect for the women in his life.
Miss Emma, Tante Lou and even Grant’s girlfriend Vivian (Lisa Arrindell Anderson) represent another kind of courage needed to survive this environment. Their weapon is endurance, something that at first, Grant sees as a weakness. He tells Vivian that her notion of change through persistence is “the battle cry of the defeated.” But each of these women has a massive reserve of strength, exerting fierce power when needed. They have all been waiting to find a man who can match their determination, or as Vivian says, “stay in the South and not be broken.” In the end, Grant is transformed just as much as Jefferson.
The movie features a true ensemble cast in the sense that all thesps shine in their respective roles. Nearly every scene is intense and significant but never melodramatic — a difficult feat for such a varied group of actors to pull off. In fact, come awards time, it will be a difficult task to distinguish between lead and supporting roles, although Cheadle and Phifer deserve special recognition for their equally powerful performances.
Writer Ann Peacock does justice to Gaines’ story, and both Peacock and director Joseph Sargent create a lyrical mood with their words and images. A special note should be made to Charles C. Bennett’s historically accurate and detailed sets as well as Ernest Troost’s mood-setting music.
Technical credits meet the highest of standards.