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On a Mission of Dignity

Makers of the HBO film 'A Lesson Before Dying,' about two men seeking freedom in different ways, say it was worth the emotional drain to shape a message for society today.

May 16, 1999|GREG BRAXTON


Cold. Unbreakable. Inescapable. Unforgiving.

The chains that bind the two main characters in the opening scenes of HBO's "A Lesson Before Dying," a searingly emotional drama set in a small Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana, are invisible.

As the film opens, Grant Wiggins, a teacher, and a young plantation worker known only as Jefferson, are free men. There are no visible bonds restricting their movements.

But, as becomes painfully clear during the course of the film, which premieres Saturday night, both men are trapped by the torturous and inhumane legacy of slavery, even though they have learned to survive and adapt in the aftermath of what has been referred to as the biggest stain on American history.

More significant, it is the chains of their own self-inflicted fears and limitations that have imprisoned their spirits.

Polar opposites in many respects, Wiggins and Jefferson unwittingly hold the keys that can free each other from their respective tragic destinies. In the film, Wiggins reluctantly takes on the task of rebuilding the soul and self-worth of Jefferson, who is on death row for a crime he did not commit. But the prisoner also winds up taking the figurative chains off the free man.

The struggle of the two men to live and die with dignity is at the center of "A Lesson Before Dying," the pay-cable network's latest venture into adapting literature involving African Americans. The best-selling 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, from which the film was adapted, won a National Book Critics award and was also a selection for Oprah Winfrey's "book club."

Colin Callender, president of HBO Original Movies, characterized the film, whose screenplay was by Ann Peacock, as the story of a man "caught between the consequences of the past and his aspirations for the future. He has to be able to reconcile those two pulls to find out who he is. There's a real tug of war of the heart at the center of this."

It's a theme that touched and affected most of the cast and principals of the film, who maintained that they identified--sometimes all too much--with the heartbreaking journey to manhood.

"I have often asked myself this question, what it takes to be a man," said Don Cheadle, who plays Wiggins. "I've never been in a situation close to this, but the scope of the question was somewhat unfathomable to me. What does it mean to make someone a man? What is the responsibility to family and community, as opposed to yourself? Do you have to lose yourself to find yourself? I have daughters. How do you go about influencing a good human being?"

Irma P. Hall, who plays Miss Emma, the godmother of Jefferson and the character who puts the story in motion, said she knew even before filming started that the project was likely to be an emotional and painful one. "I just thought, 'Oh, boy, I'm going to be hurting in this one,' " Hall recalled with a chuckle.

Also starring in the drama is Cicely Tyson, who plays Tante Lou, a friend of Miss Emma who orders Wiggins, her younger relative, to take on the unenviable task of rehabilitating Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer). The film is directed by Joseph Sargent, who also directed HBO's Emmy-winning "Miss Evers' Boys."

The project is also premiering at a time when the disturbing high school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and other destructive acts by young people have put a spotlight on the question of one's humanity and whether a belief in the dignity and value of life has been lost on much of the younger generation.

Said Cheadle: "Young people see all the time on television that life is portrayed as being cheap and unimportant. They're fed a steady diet of that kind of thing, and some of them argue that life isn't valuable. I hope that this film can transcend just being entertainment and that it could cause some young people to think about the sanctity of life."


The story grew out of Gaines' fascination with executions at San Quentin, across the bay from San Francisco, where he spent much of his life.

"There's nothing more terrifying for a man than knowing that he's going to die right at 10 p.m. on a very specific day," Gaines said. "That whole idea has just haunted me and haunted me. I tried to write about it before in the 1980s, but I got no cooperation from the warden. Then a friend of mine gave me some information about a case in the South in the 1940s about a black man involved in the killing of a white person, and I decided to go in that direction."

Gaines wanted the two main characters to tackle the dilemma of what constitutes a whole life and what it means to become a man.

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