A `Lesson Before Dying': A not-to-be-missed drama that's both powerful and wise.

May 22, 1999|BY DAVID ZURAWIK | BY DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After a month of bloated, gaseous, hideously expensive and silly network films like "Cleopatra" and "Atomic Train," it is almost a shock to come upon a production as focused, challenging, moving and fine as HBO's "A Lesson Before Dying."

The film has it all. There is wisdom on such big themes as manhood, education, dignity, courage, community, capital punishment and race. There is great acting. Don Cheadle, whose show-stopping performance in HBO's recent "Rat Pack" almost turned that film into "The Sammy Davis Story," takes you so far inside his character you forget there's a screen separating his world from yours. And there's great writing both in the novel by Ernest J. Gaines on which the film is based and the screenplay by Ann Peacock that exquisitely heightens emotion by consistently understating it.

This is television for a thinking person made by many of the folks responsible for such acclaimed works as HBO's "Miss Evers' Boys" and ABC's "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman."

Set in rural Louisiana in 1947, the story centers on Grant Wiggin (Cheadle), a young man who returned after college to teach in the one-room parish school he attended as a child. Today, we would say Wiggin has lots of issues. He is proud, ambitious, angry and conflicted. He is also involved with a married woman, Vivian Baptiste (Lisa Arrindell Anderson).

Despite such issues, Wiggin feels like he's doing all right -- with his three-piece suits and elevated status among the black community -- until a young plantation worker named Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer) is wrongly convicted of the murder of a white store owner.

In a misguided and racist closing argument, Jefferson's attorney refers to him as a "hog -- a poor, dumb hog." Jefferson is sentenced to death, and Wiggin's life will never be the same.

Wiggin's aunt, Tante Lou (Cicely Tyson), the woman who paid for his education by picking cotton and scrubbing floors, and her best friend, Miss Emma (Irma P. Hall), Jefferson's godmother, call on Wiggin after the verdict to demand his help.

Given the feudal-like power structure under which they live, the two women know they can't do anything about the conviction and sentence. But they feel shame for themselves and Jefferson because of what the attorney said. They want Wiggin to visit Jefferson in jail and teach him about dignity so that he dies as a man and not an animal -- so that his death challenges the fundamental lie of white superiority.

And Wiggin wants none of it. He doesn't really care about Jefferson. Furthermore, to get involved in the matter would force him to engage the white power structure, which will mean many small and, perhaps, some large humiliations that he would rather avoid.

But get involved he does out of a sense of obligation to the two older women and a challenge to his manhood from Vivian.

The journey that Wiggin and Jefferson find themselves on -- both against their better judgment at first -- is remarkable. You will feel privileged to have been allowed to bear witness. A scene near the end, in which Wiggin brings his pupils to the jail to say goodbye to Jefferson, is as powerful as anything I have seen on TV this year. It's choreographed as carefully as a religious ritual and delivers a moment that is elevated and ultimately transforming.

Wiggin and Jefferson both have lessons to learn and knowledge to impart. Finding such wisdom on television in a "sweeps" ratings month is a miracle in its own right. Treasure the moment on HBO tonight.

`A Lesson Before Dying'

When: 8 to 9: 40 tonight

Where: HBO

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