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JANE PITTMAN'S STORY SYDNEY WEINBERG Some films achieve "truth" by virtue of fidelity to historical fact. Others reach the same goal by using fictional characters to gain insight into the essence of an experience. Miss Jane Pittman*is a superb example of this latter type motion picture. It is the story of an ordinary black woman who has managed to survive for 110 years. Her greatness consists of a capacity to endure what life and history thrust upon her and then, finally, at the end of her life when endurance proved wanting, to act. She has experienced slavery, Reconstruction, lynchings, the murder and accidental death of loved ones, the meanness and kindness of white plantation owners, the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960's. Miss Jane's life is composed of bits and pieces of the lives of hundreds of thousands of black people from the Civil War to modern times. And although she never becomes a stereotype, the vignettes reveal more about the history of her race and black-white relations in America than any other film I have seen. The story line is simple and a bit contrived. In 1962, in the midst of the recent Civil Rights movement in the South, a white reporter comes to Louisiana to interview the venerable woman for a Northern magazine . Miss Jane, enjoying her old age on the plantation of a kindly man she raised from' a child, is sympathetic with the goals of the movement but believes the time has not yet come for a change: whites were not ready and God had given her no sign. She refuses the appeal of her Northern-educated godson, Jimmy, to drink from a "whites only" water fountain. As confrontations mount in the nearby town, Miss Jane slowly begins to unfold her life for the reporter. Throughout the film this counterpoint between the remembered past and what we know is going on in the present provides a dramatic tension and creates a sense of historical continuity. From memories of slavery as a child during the Civil War, we travel with young Jane on a terrifying and futile journey North that ends at another plantation little different from the one she had left. There she raises her foster child, Ned, just a few years younger than herself and Sydney Weinberg teaches history at Ramapo College in New Jersey * The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1973, 110 min., Color) is available through Learning Corporation of America. 13 the only other survivor of a ruthless attack on the band of freedmen. She sends him North when his outspokenness endangers his life and soon meets the intrepid cowboy who becomes her husband. They buy their way free of the plantation and walk to East Texas where Joe is chief bronc buster at a ranch. After he meets death in a struggle with a "killer hoss," Miss Jane goes on living as best she can. Years later, her foster son returns with his family only to die at the hands of a killer hired by whites upset at his attempts to educate local blacks. Miss Jane grieves and goes on. She settles down in the 1920' s at a congenial plantation in Louisiana where we find her still, like the old oak she talks to who's "been here all these years and knows more than you'll ever know. " The scene switches abruptly to the present. Turned down by his Godmother, Jimmy and a black girl are jailed for attempting to drink at the fountain. Jimmy is murdered, and this is sign enough for Miss Jane. Abandoning her passivity, she is driven into town and hobbles the long yards up to the drinking fountain where the fleshy representatives of white law stand by helplessly as the old lady makes the symbollic gesture her godson had died for. Now Miss Jane herself becomes a symbol as she is helped to the throne-like chair in the back of a pick-up truck and a black crowd follows her slowly and silently out of town. This brief outline hardly does justice to the sense of history as personal drama that unrolls before us in the film. When...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 13-16
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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