Three years before the miniseries Roots (1977) became an unexpected ratings blockbuster and opened many Americans’ eyes to the breadth of suffering that Africans and their U.S.-born children endured during a century of American slavery, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman explored similar subject matter and earned a reputation as one of the best TV movies ever made. (Accolades showered upon the film included nine Emmy awards.) Based on a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is purely fictional, depicting a 110-year-old woman as she recalls her life from the Civil War in the 1860s to the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. Gaines’ clever structure, which involves a journalist asking Miss Jane Pittman for her memories, allows the film to present vignettes that illustrate myriad forms of abuse, oppression, and prejudice. Through each harrowing episode, themes of dignity and perseverance dominate, so the movie offers both an indictment of racist social structures and a tribute to the people who survived life within those structures.
At the beginning of the picture, Jane (Cicely Tyson) is physically frail but mentally sharp, so she’s able to oblige a request from New York reporter Quentin Lerner (Michael Murphy) for a description of her life. Most of the film unfolds in flashbacks, with Valerie Odell playing the title character as a child in a few scenes and Tyson handling most of the performance. Some of the experiences that Jane describes are historic, as when a plantation owner grants young Jane her freedom, and some are horrific, as when racist vigilantes attack a group of ex-slaves, leaving Jane to fend for herself in unfriendly territory. Each time Jane finds joy, tragedy follows. Her happy marriage to Joe Pittman (Rod Perry) ends prematurely, and her guardianship of an orphan named Ned (played by three different actors) takes a dark turn. Jane recalls the tribulations of Reconstruction, during which northern carpetbaggers plundered the demolished American south, and she describes how working as a sharecropper following emancipation was simply another form of slavery. Yet the filmmakers never take the easy path of suggesting that Jane was some pivotal historical figure--excepting her incredible strength of character, she is an everywoman representing the African-American experience. Only at the very end of the story do the filmmakers gift Jane with “importance,” thanks to a climactic scene that encapsulates Jane’s mode of quiet defiance.
Finding fault with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is not an impossible task, but only the most hard-hearted would try. The film’s politics are humane, and the story’s engagement with history is meaningful and unflinching. If no one real person actually had all of Jane’s experiences, so what? The stories of thousands who lived through the nightmare of slavery and its aftermath remain untold, so this fictional character speaks for them. Tyson does fine work, even when slathered in award-winning old-age makeup created by Dick Smith and Stan Winston. She plays every scene with emotion and sincerity, resisting many opportunities for cheap sentimentality and instead sketching a portrait infused with pride and resilience. The supporting cast is fine, the script by Tracy Keenan Wynn is efficient, and the direction by John Korty is unobtrusive, but the experience of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is all about watching Tyson channel decades of suffering through a prism of embattled self-respect.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman: RIGHT ON