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A Lesson Before Dying (1999)

Sometimes the last thing there is to learn is how to die like a man.

Directed by:

Joseph Sargent

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: United States

Mekhi Phifer stars as Jefferson, a black youth living in 1940s Louisiana. Jefferson is present during the shooting of a white grocery store owner, which also leaves two black men dead, and although he was not responsible for the shooting Jefferson makes the mistake of deciding to help himself to the contents of the cash register. He is caught in the act, and wrongly accused of the murders. During his trial, his white attorney uses a defence typical of the period whereby he equates the boy with a lowly hog, in an attempt to show that he would not have had the intellect to know what he was doing – in other words, that Jefferson is not even worthy of conviction. This depressing defence fails, and Jefferson is convicted and sentenced to die.

Although accepting that he is facing the death penalty, his outraged mother Miss Emma (Irma P Hall) and his aunt Tante Lou (Cicely Tyson) want him to go to his death like a man, and not still thinking of himself as a hog. To this end they recruit local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle) to visit Jefferson in his cell. He is the only educated black man that they know, and they hope that he will be able to convince Jefferson that he is indeed a man. Wiggins is reluctant, uncertain what good it will do, but eventually agrees. When he meets Jefferson, he will find that it changes his views on everything – not only must Jefferson learn that he is a man and find a way to die with dignity, but Wiggins will learn some lessons about himself also.

Tragic and gripping, this film exposes some of the racial inequalities of the recent past in America. Made for the small screen rather than a theatrical release, its strong storyline and fine acting could teach a lesson to many bigger productions. The outstanding writing shines through, and the great cast make the most of it. The direction is simple and patient, and allows the story to unfold slowly moving inexorably towards the inevitable ending. Not succumbing to a Hollywood happy ending, instead it emphasises that this kind of unfairness was taken for granted and didn’t end well.

Based on the award-winning novel by Ernest J Gaines.

It's Got: Excellent performances telling a gripping story.

It Needs: To lead the audience more boldly through the changes in the characters.

DVD Extras No extras are included with this single-disc release. DVD Extras Rating: 0/10

Alternatives:

A Time to Kill., In the Heat of the Night, The Hurricane

Summary

A gem of a movie that avoids any kind of happy ending and instead concentrates on getting its dramatic message across.

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