The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
In 1977, Roots held American television audiences in thrall like nothing had before by telling the truth about slavery. It was a true television event that opened up new levels of discussion about race relations and acknowledged how far black people have come and how far we still have to go.
Three years before that landmark, however, another television movie told a story about slavery that was not too different; in fact you could say it helped pave the way for Roots.
A novel was published in 1971 called The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, and I feel the need to emphasize it was a novel, a work of fiction. It references numerous real people, places and events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is fiction. CBS adapted it into a TV movie that aired in January 1974, with the teleplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty.
The star was Cicely Tyson.
The former fashion model from Harlem is still alive and active as an actress at the age of 95. Her most recent work is on the show How to Get Away with Murder, for which she has been Emmy-nominated five times, including this year. She’s believed to have an excellent chance at winning, which would make her the oldest woman to win an Emmy! Earlier this summer she won a Peabody Award, which sits on her shelf beside her three Emmys, her honorary Oscar and her Presidential Medal of Freedom, and back in January she made the TV Hall of Fame. She has no plans to retire either.
Before all these weighty accolades, she was an actress working mostly in television. She was on I Spy, Naked City, Guiding Light, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and Mission: Impossible, among other shows, and in 1972 she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the film Sounder.
In Jane, she embodies the adult life of a former slave, who we follow from the post-Civil War era, when she’s freed, through her struggles to build a life for herself and those she loves, up to the 1960s, when the civil rights battle is in full swing. Tyson spends most of the role in old age makeup because Jane is so long-lived—she’s 110 when we meet her, if you can believe that...
...though she totally sells it as an old woman. Her voice, her movements, her mannerisms, completely make you believe she’s as old as she looks. Her old woman makeup was done by a pair of legends better known for creating talking apes, killer cyborgs and deadly aliens: Stan Winston and Rick Baker. These photos will give you an idea what the makeup process was like for Tyson.
Jane is not as brutal as other films in depicting the horrors of slavery; you see a lynching and a shooting, and you see Jane get slapped around by some Klan dudes. Mostly it deals with the difficulty in leading a normal life again, in adjusting to a prejudiced white society deeply resentful of these people who were once considered property and now must be considered equals under the law.
Jane sees loved ones come and go, victims of racial intolerance, but she survives, and when her people come to her for support in the 1960s, when the fight for racial justice has reached a fever pitch, she must decide whether or not she can make a contribution at her advanced age. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally moving tale.
It cleaned up at the Emmys, winning nine, including awards for Outstanding Special, Comedy or Drama, Directing, Writing, Makeup, Music, and two for Tyson: Lead Actress in a Drama and a special Actress of the Year award. I’m glad to state it still holds up, almost fifty years later.