The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a landmark film, one of the first television movies to focus on history from the perspective of black Americans, coming three years before the more well-known miniseries Roots. Cicely Tyson gives a double-Emmy-winning performance as Miss Jane, both as a young woman and a scratchy-voiced 110-year-old elder, and the scenes involving the departure and return of her son are especially touching. Stan Winston and Rick Baker, known for creature effects in Star Wars and Men in Black, created the Emmy-winning make-up, which convincingly transforms the 40-year-old Tyson into a believable relic of a bygone century. (Interesting fact: Thalmus Rasulala plays the older version of Tyson’s adoptive son Ned, but, when both of them starred in Roots three years later, they were married, playing Kunta Kinte’s African parents.)
The film is somewhat similar to another meet-‘em-and-move-on film, 1970’s Little Big Man, in detailing the extended, frequently sad life story of a make-up-laden interviewee, but it depicts the struggles of postbellum African-Americans rather than Native Americans. Jane meets a number of influential people, a kind Union soldier who bestows on her a freed name, a difficult plantation owner bent on keeping her husband close by, an accented acquaintance willing to murder anyone. These rather short character moments heighten the sense of realism since life is so much more than just the big connections (parent, husband, child, etc.) Sadly, all of these relationships end in heartache, since Jane foresees the arrival of grief but is powerless to stop it, lamely pleading for her loved ones to listen without giving any explanation why.
The highlight of the film that makes everything before worthwhile is the final and most famous scene at the water fountain. Miss Jane makes a wordless demonstration, and even if the officers glaring at her are probably unaware of the full extent of her sorrows, it’s clear that her long life had earned her this one boon, this one silent and peaceful protest, this one chance to lead, however brief. It’s a small but extraordinarily triumphant moment.
Between Cicely Tyson’s emotional performance and the realistic make-up, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a sometimes mournful, sometimes inspiring meet-‘em-and-move-on that proves the power made-for-television films can carry.
Best line: (the aged Miss Jane, to the reporter, perhaps comparing herself to the tree) “But an old oak like this one here, that’s been here all these years and knows more than you’ll ever know, it ain’t craziness, son; it’s just the nobility you respects.”Artistry: 8 Characters/Actors: 10 Entertainment: 7 Visual Effects: 10 Originality: 8 Watchability: 6 TOTAL: 49 out of 60
Next: #127 – Ghostbusters
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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