Top positive review
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Civil war to civil rights
on 9 January 2006
It surprises me how many people think that The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is an actual biographical/autobiographical work. It is not -- it is fiction. It is a brilliantly crafted work interweaving historical references and recollections into an overall framework of the life of a woman born into slavery who survived to the point of the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
The style of the book made into a film is one of oral history. The editor interviewed and transcribed Miss Jane's stories beginning in 1962 and going on for nearly a year. The editor also talked to other people, particularly when Miss Jane would fall silent or forget things (he couldn't tell if she was doing this deliberately or not), and also talked to people after Miss Jane's funeral. Some of this is lost in the film, but the overall narrative flow does keep this flavour in the story.
In a small space, the author (who is to be distinguished from the editor, a character in the novel) shows his intention -- this is to be an overarching story of black experience from the Civil War to Civil Rights, seen primarily through the experience of one woman, but incorporating and representing the experiences of all others.
The telling of the tale begins in the Civil War, where Miss Jane is child (she can't actually remember when she was born). Her name at that point was Ticey. Her first story deals with negotiating the delicate balance between fleeing Confederate soldiers, arriving Union soldiers, and the dominant presence of the mistress of the plantation. It was a Union soldier who suggested the name of Jane to Ticey ('Ticey is a slave name' the corporal said). Thus she became Jane. Jane Brown, adopting the last name of the corporal. These scenes are portrayed in the movie with strong performances.
Cicely Tyson takes over the role as the adult Jane Pittman at this point, and does an absolutely stunning job at the part.
The story of Miss Jane continues apace through experience on another plantation and finally ending up in the Quarters. This is where she helped give birth to and raise Jimmy.
Anytime a child is born, the old people look in his face and ask him if he's the One. No, they don't say it out loud like I'm saying it to you now. Maybe they don't say it at all; maybe they just feel it -- but feel it they do. "You the One?" I'm sure Lena asked Jimmy that when she first held him in her arms. "You the One, Jimmy? You the One?"
Jimmy was the one who would get Miss Jane involved in the Civil Rights struggle late in her life, a struggle which she had in fact been participating in all her life. Jimmy, like so many in Miss Jane's life, like so many in black experience, would end up being killed, this time over protests for drinking fountains and bathroom privileges. But as Miss Jane said, just part of him was dead.
The greater part of Jimmy was still alive, and with the courage and example of Miss Jane, they went to Bayonne to stand up for their rights. Miss Jane was affected by many events; Miss Jane finally stopped reacting and acted up.
The author of the story, Ernest Gaines, was born on a Louisiana plantation. His descriptions and situations are authentic and mesmerising, and these are captured well in the film. Cicely Tyson's portrayal of Miss Jane in the film is an endearing performance, but one misses much if one relies solely on the film (plus some of the details are changed, sometimes inexplicably). One thing I would recommend is watching the film and reading the book as companions to each other -- some of the dialogue in the film supplements the book (like Miss Jane's final speech to the reporter), and the book fills in (as all books do) many of the details glossed over in the film.