THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITMAN
US, 1973, 109 minutes, Colour.
Cicely Tyson, Michael Murphy, Richard A. Dysart, Katherine Helmond, Roy Poole.
Directed by John Korty.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman is most satisfying entertainment, but with a message to be heeded. The film is a capsule history of civil rights in America from the 1860's to the 1960's via the flashback memories of a one hundred and ten year old lady (reminiscent of the technique in Little Big Man); slavery, freedom, Ku Klux Klan, the gaining of dignity, clashes of rights. Cicely Tyson (ranging from age 22 to 110) gives an assured performance, coloured by deep humanity and gently sly humour. Her final speech, the oak tree and her walk to the "whites only" fountain are high points in screen dignity. This is a warm, sad and happy film which makes the preaching to the converted, it is a worthwhile human document. It was made for American television and directed by John Korty
(Riverrun, Alex and the Gypsy).
1. How impressive was this film and its impact? It was made for TV. Was this evident in its techniques and styles?
2. The style of autobiography for this film and its success? Centering on Jane Pitman? The nature of the flashbacks as highlights of memory? The ability of the audience to allow for the gaps in the narrative? The continuity of the history and the focus on Miss Jane?
3. How critical was this type of autobiography? The credibility of the person, her warmness, the culmination of the autobiography indignity; the speech on the oak, the walk to the fountain, her death?
4. How valuable was the message of this film? Was it too preachy? Was it a film for the converted? Its impact on people who were racist? The significance of Ned's and Jane's speeches on race relationships as embodying the message?
5. How important a film exploring and portraying human dignity was this? The quality of life that it explored, the realities of freedom and lack of freedom, the realities of personal suffering and race suffering, of persecution, of the joys in life? The redemption factors in the dignity and message with Ned laying down his life? The nature of human nobility and dignity?
6. How interesting a picture of American history was this? The cumulative effect of the flashbacks? The nature of memory on the part of Jane? The American memory and conscience? The importance of memory for the present and the future? For learning through memory?
7. Trace the history of race relationships in the United States through the memories of Miss Jane. The history of Black attitudes; the origins of slavery, work on the plantations, slave names and personal names, the status and way of life of slaves, the slaves amongst themselves and their attitudes towards their masters, the masters' attitudes as portrayed in this film, the war as a civil rights war, the impact of the war on the slaves, serving Confederate and Yankie, the surprise of freedom, the attitudes of freedom, the wanderings, the independent searching for work, living on the plantations as free people, the gaining of an atmosphere of freedom as portrayed in this film in such scenes as the picnics, etc., the response to deaths and the Ku Klux Klan, the changes in the twentieth century and the gradual building up of rights? How fair and just was this picture of Negro civil rights? The emotional and intellectual response it asked from audiences?
8. Miss Jane as embodying the Negro history? The emotional use of this device? The memories, the speeches, the truth of her personality and what she said, and the significance of the ending? The quality of Negro fight for civil rights in the light of her life and words?
9. How well did the film portray Jane as a person? The importance of our getting to know her as an old woman and seeing her past in that light? The dignity and experience of age, her sly humour, Jane in the modern world contrasting with the old world: from the civil war to television and the space age?
10. The importance of such segments of the film and her memories and the slave sequences and life on the plantation, serving both armies, the attitudes of the white masters and their overthrow during the war, Jane getting her name, the declaration of freedom by the master, the wandering around the American countryside, the search for Ohio and the Yankee memory, the negro murders, the women and the water and her hatred, the dray rides etc., and the effect on the young Jane and Ned.
11. The life of the adult Jane on the plantation, her love, the searching for fifty dollars, the tyranny of the confederate veteran, the importance of life in her life, the rodeo and her suspicions and superstitions, the visit to the seer, the impact of death?
12. The older Jane in a more mellow civil rights period: her conversation with Albert and her knowing that Ned would be killed, Ned and his experience of Cuba, Ned and the return into Jane's life, Ned and his family? The values that Ned stood for in his speeches? The emotional response to his death? How could Albert actually shoot him knowing him as he did? Ned's decision to stay and die? Laying down his life for his friends and his race?
13. Jane as getting old and as adapting to the twentieth century: her wandering around, her venerated place in the community, her cooking, the sequences of the picnics, her love for the sports and for the baseball, her love for Jimmy? How did these sequences show a difference within sixty years of the African American status?
14. Miss Jane adapting to the modern world - Jimmy and his civil rights work, his visit to the Church, the girl and the demonstration and her arrest, the burnt bus, the deaths, the American Southern policemen and their hostility, the segregation issues? The contrast of 100 years of black American experiences?
15. How well drawn and important for the film were characters like Ned, Albert, Mr. Roberts. the negro woman who was Jane's friend?
16. The personality of the interviewer and his fascination with Miss Jane and his continual going back to her even when asked to do other assignments? His reverence for her and his emotional response? was this too sentimental or could audiences identify with this easily?
17. How well did the film in its techniques blend the past and its present?
18. What is the effect of a film like this on audience values? Do films like this change people? Reinforce their values? The highlight of the speech on the oak and values embodied in this speech, the dignity of the walk towards the fountain and its impact? Why was this so moving? How real was it? Why did it not evoke violence in the white policemen? The postscript about Jane's death and the significance of her life?
19. What did the film imply about the value of one human life in itself, and its impact on others?