Dec. 19, 2009
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)
Grade: 61/100

Director: John Korty
Stars: Cicely Tyson, Michael Murphy, Arnold Wilkerson

What it's about. It is Louisiana in 1962. African American Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson) is 110 years old, and encouraged by civil rights activists to participate in a demonstration. Instead, she gives an extended interview to earnest white journalist Michael Murphy. She tells him the story of her life. She was born into slavery, toiled on plantations, failed to cross the Mississippi, and watched various beloved courageous black leaders meet their deaths. These include Big Laura (Odetta), clubbed to death by white racists, a schoolteacher hung by the Klan, her husband, Joe Pittman (Rod Perry), killed by an evil white horse, adopted son Ned (Thalmus Rasulalal), shot by a Cajun hit man, and finally, civil war activist Jimmy (Arnold Wilkerson), also murdered by bigots.

How others will see it. This film was promoted and accepted as a landmark made-for-television movie, equal to the quality of the big budget films of major studios. It won eight Emmy Awards, and Cicely Tyson's performance was widely hailed. The User Ratings at are consistently high, although lower for foreign viewers, who are likely to feel greater detachment from the subject matter.

How I felt about it. We know how we are supposed to feel about it. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman falls into the same category as Schindler's List, Glory, Sophie's Choice, Roots, Judgment at Nuremburg, or The Diary of Anne Frank.

That is, we are supposed to see and admire these 'event' movies, which teach us about man's inhumanity to another kind of man, and how wrong it is.

Viewers get the message, and withhold any criticism of the movie. White viewers can absolve their own meager sins of racial or ethnic discrimination by admitting the much greater oppressions of our ancestors. Black viewers who have experienced small scale prejudice and done nothing but take it can restore their pride by appreciating the noble sacrifices of courageous past civil rights leaders.

In the end, though, the extent that the movie is good or bad depends solely on its execution, and not its themes. No bonus points should be awarded strictly based upon good intentions.

You certainly can argue that the subject matter makes it more likely to be good than, for example, Saw VI. Nonetheless, the above list of films contains both great films and duds. Schindler's List is among the best movies ever made. Judgment at Nuremberg, for one, is difficult to watch, regardless of its star power.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is filled with its own sense of importance, and it works in the film's favor. When Cicely Tyson screws up her face behind the pancake makeup for a pronouncement about the wisdom of oak trees, the gesture carries more gravitas than it should. An oak tree has been around a long time, but that doesn't make it any smarter than a dandelion that sprouted last Tuesday.

Despite earning the awe of Michael Murphy, the world's nicest white man, what has Miss Jane Pittman, the symbol of the advancement of African Americans over the course of a century, personally achieved? She has lived to be 110, partly because white racists targeted men instead, partly because she didn't have to break evil horses, and mostly because the local white property owners choose to give her a comfortable life once she became elderly.

If the message here is that freedom is worth sacrificing for, the irony is that the true sacrifices are made by others. Jane Pittman knows no one will club her for drinking from the white-only fountain, even if it is guarded by police as if it is a gold shipment from Fort Knox.