Bitter roots

Charles Burnett's Nightjohn chronicles the liberation of American slaves-- from ignorance

Nightjohn, the new film by acclaimed director Charles Burnett, recounts the mythical journeys of an escaped slave named John (Carl Lumbly) who returns to bondage after having learned to read. With his intellect freed by literacy, he undertakes a mission--to liberate others from the bondage of ignorance. He envisions that each slave he teaches will pass along the gift--and that all slaves will eventually be free.

Nightjohn is also the story of Sarny, a slave girl who yearns for a sense of identity after the sudden absence of her mother. And throughout its 92 minutes, Nightjohn is a settled rendition of an oft-told tale--that of America's inherently vile history of human bondage, and of those who overcame its blows to the soul. Again, as in the director's 1995 feature film, The Glass Shield, Burnett takes a story of terrible woe, and turns it toward a brighter light as his characters unearth their own strengths.

And here, as in Shield, Burnett gathers a surprising array of needy characters. Nightjohn, on his first night of bondage at the Waller Plantation, seeks out Sarny, the keeper of tobacco. Her task is to mind the Waller child and spit tobacco juice on the roses to ward off bugs. Nightjohn quickly seizes her fancy with a promise to give her something that can never be sold or taken away by Master Waller (Beau Bridges), like her mother was. He offers to trade a bit of tobacco for the alphabet. Before long, Sarny is in grave jeopardy because of her discoveries. A church scene grows tense with Sarny's abrupt, literary connection of words in hymns to words etched in stained glass and words in Bible verses. She wells up with emotion as she discovers the power of her own ability to read. The preacher, however, confuses Sarny's inspiration with a repentant sinner's tears and welcomes her to a baptismal. "Are you saved, child?" he asks, his shaking hand cradling the slave girl's tender, angelic face. Sarny looks toward the balcony where Nightjohn stands at the rail, then returns with a glory-filled, "Yessah, I'm saved. I'm saved!" Nightjohn is full of such fodder, yet remains an ambitious and worthy effort.

By now, Burnett is a USA Film Festival mainstay, with three of his other films--Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding, and To Sleep With Anger--having earned him a certain status among festival attendees. In Nightjohn, Burnett shows his directorial strength by hewing closely to the film's message of triumph. Nightjohn's weakness, however, is over-the-top acting. Carl Lumbly as Nightjohn, for one, turns myth into a harangue of ramblings. His arrival at the Waller Plantation sets him immediately at odds with other slaves as he plants his own row of vegetables before turning in for the night. "Whatcha doing out here?" asks Old Man (Bill Cobbs) of a digging John. "I's been workin' de fields for a man I don't like all day. Now it's time to plant my own seeds!" Nightjohn replies. A few minutes later, he engages the curiosity of young Sarny. Then Nightjohn, the film, takes us on its journey--as those well-planted seeds sprout into an enduring legacy of the strength of the human spirit.

Nightjohn screens April 21 at 7:15 p.m.

 
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