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A Lesson Before Dying
A Lesson Before Dying
Actors: Don Cheadle, Cicely Tyson, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall, Brent Jennings
Director: Joseph Sargent
Genres: Drama, Television, African American Cinema
PG-13     2000     1hr 45min



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Movie Details

Actors: Don Cheadle, Cicely Tyson, Mekhi Phifer, Irma P. Hall, Brent Jennings
Director: Joseph Sargent
Creators: Celia D. Costas, Daniel Bernstein, Ellen Krass, Joel Stillerman, Robert Benedetti, Ann Peacock, Ernest J. Gaines
Genres: Drama, Television, African American Cinema
Sub-Genres: Drama, All Made-for-TV Movies, African American Cinema
Studio: Hbo Home Video
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 01/25/2000
Original Release Date: 05/22/1999
Theatrical Release Date: 05/22/1999
Release Year: 2000
Run Time: 1hr 45min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Languages: English, Spanish
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French

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Member Movie Reviews

Shirley R. (sdrred)
Reviewed on 6/5/2008...
wow! gotta watch this one!!!
1 of 1 member(s) found this review helpful.

Movie Reviews

Faithful to the book
J. Crean | San Diego, CA USA | 08/14/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This movie faithfully captures the essence of the book and brings it to life. When I read the book I just loved it. Shortly after I finished reading the book, I found out that HBO was going to show the movie, but I didn't have HBO. So when I saw that it had come out on DVD, I knew I had to buy it. When I got it, I popped it in right away and WOW, I was pleasantly surprised. It followed the book very well and wasn't "Hollywood-ized".I warn that this movie isn't very action-packed, but it's a great intriguing drama. I recommend it to anyone looking to see an intelligent, well-made movie."
Deals With Issues Much Deeper That Skin Color
J. E. George | Aiken, SC United States | 05/12/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I missed the first few minutes of this film, so I watched the rest not knowing if the convicted man was guilty. By the end of the film, it was no longer an issue...
The same appeared to happen with the racial issues presented. The open demoralizing of the blacks (by the whites) was soon overshadowed by the more personal issues of spirituality and self-esteem. One of Cheadle's finer performances, in my opinion, with equally impressive supporting performances. This is a wonderful film, with a "Lesson" or two for us all."
There are more important lessons to be learned than death wi
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 09/27/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"In Louisiana in 1948 a young black man named Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer) makes the fatal mistake of accepting a ride from another pair of young men. When they stop at a local store to get some beer the other men do not have enough money and the white storeowner will not give them credit. Guns are drawn and everybody ends up dead but Jefferson, who is arrested for the crime. Since this is a question of black and white justice in the South before the Civil Rights Movement, Jefferson is condemned to be executed. The fact that he is innocent of the actual killings is not important to this 1999 HBO movie adapted from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines ("The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"). Nobody is going to save Jefferson from his fate. The focus here is not on justice, but rather on death with dignity.

The key moment is not what happened in the store but rather what is said during the trial, when Jefferson's defense attorney, a white lawyer, seeks to save his client's life by saying that Jefferson is like a hog. That is to say, as a Negro Jefferson is no more intelligent than a hog and not capable of understanding what he is doing, therefore he should not be convicted. The jury, no doubt well acquainted with the practice of barbeque, has no more qualms about having Jefferson executed than they would of slaughtering a hog for a feast. But Jefferson's mother, Miss Emma (Irma P. Hall), and his aunt Tante Lou (Cicely Tyson), are outraged that the boy has been called a hog. So they badger local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle), the only educated black man in town, to visit Jefferson in jail and convince him that he is a man and not a hog.

Now, this is certainly an interesting idea. After all, the premise of white supremacy is that Negroes are not human, with the idea that they were property rather than people codified in the U.S. Constitution as well as implicit in the practice of slavery. If Jefferson accepts this characterization, advanced by his own attorney and inherent in the social system in which he lives, then convincing him otherwise is a noble effort. The flaw here is that I was not convinced that Jefferson thought he was a hog rather than a man. Maybe my problem is that Jefferson is played by an actor who is playing a doctor on "ER," not to mention the fact that I reject the idea of racial superiority or inferiority. But since his family accepts the fact that the white justice system is going to kill Jefferson I would be inclined to think he would be of a similar mind and that he would not take his lawyer's simile to heart. However, you really have to accept the premise or else the movie cannot have the requisite transformations at the end.

"A Lesson Before Dying" which won the 1999 Emmy for Outstanding Made for Television Movie, is one of those movies adapted from a novel where I have not read the book but I end up thinking the depth it provides probably fixes a lot of the film's shortcomings. Obviously I think the fault is to be found in Ann Peacock's Emmy winning screenplay, because the performances by the cast and as good as you would expect them to be, but if you buy the story's premise from the beginning then you will not be having a major problem with director Joseph Sargent's film. Given the Civil Rights Movement to come what becomes interesting is not so much the battle by Wiggins to communicate with Jefferson, but the conflict between the teacher and Reverend Ambrose (Brent Jennings) over what is best for the condemned young man. Does death with dignity preclude salvation or does the quest for salvation require acceptance of your fate?

Ultimately, the character who learns the most is Wiggins, as the teacher becomes the student. Wiggins is a college educated black man in a place where few of either color get such formal education. He resists being asked to do this task because it means going backwards, giving up some of his own dignity to go with hat in hand to ask the white men to be allowed to meet with Jefferson. The fact that Wiggins wants to marry a light-skinned Negro woman becomes part of this equation as well, because "A Lesson Before Dying" indicts the schoolteacher for turning his back on his race (indeed, there is a scene where his remarks to his students are as demeaning as those of any of the white characters). By the end of the film life with dignity is the goal."