SUBJECTS — U.S./1865 – 1991 (slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement); Diversity/African-American;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Female Role Model; Diversity;


AGE: Age: 10+; No MPAA Rating;

Drama; 1973; 110 minutes; Color. Available from

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

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Click here for TWM’s lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

For suggestions about using filmed adaptations of literary works in the ELA classroom, see Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories and Plays.


This movie is a fictionalized account of the life of one of the last surviving slaves. Starting with Jane Pittman’s childhood on a plantation, the film details her life through Reconstruction, the reassertion of the power of the Southern white establishment, the two World Wars and the Depression, ending with the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. The film is adapted from the book by Ernest Gaines.


Selected Awards: 1973 Emmy Awards: Best Direction; Best Teleplay, Best Actress and several more; 1975 Directors Guild of America: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Special.

Featured Actors: Cicely Tyson, Odette, Joseph Tremice, Richard Dysart, Michael Murphy, Katherine Helmond.

Director: John Korty.


This is the story of a strong and loving woman who, over a long life, moves from being a slave to participating in a civil rights demonstration.


MODERATE. This movie shows a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan, attacks by gangs, and murders. The violence is portrayed in a mildly graphic way. However, it is all pertinent to the story, and it is not offensive. The term “nigger” is used but only appropriately.


Tell your children that while this story is fiction, the events that it depicts are very realistic. For example, black men were lynched for trying to help their people. Ask and answer the Quick Discussion Question below.


In the Southern United States, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, “Jim Crow Laws” prohibited blacks from using washrooms, water fountains, certain laundromats, and other facilities. Blacks could not eat at most restaurants and had to sit at the back of busses, the front being reserved for whites. These restrictions were constant and humiliating reminders to blacks of their second-class status. Repealing the Jim Crow laws and changing the customs of segregation were crucial parts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The term “Reconstruction” refers to the period from 1865 to 1877 in which freed slaves and the federal government tried to remake the South. Reconstruction ended with the collapse of the last Southern state government under the control of the Republican Party. Thereafter, in a period called “the Redemption” by Southern whites, the Reconstruction reforms, including universal public education, were scaled back.

Joe Louis (1914 – 1981), called the Brown Bomber, was a great heavyweight-boxing champion. He defended his title 25 times and was beaten only three times. One of those losses was in 1936 to a German national named Max Schmeling. The Nazis sought to use Schmeling’s victory as proof of their “Aryan” superiority. In a 1938 rematch, Louis knocked Schmeling out in one round, and most Americans celebrated Louis’ victory as a triumph for democracy. During the Second World War, Louis helped recruit soldiers and gave inspirational speeches. Miss Pittman refers to this fight in her conversation with young Jimmy. (Schmeling himself was not a sore loser and not a Nazi. Decades later when Louis was in financial trouble, Schmeling, along with many others, sent him money.)

Jackie Robinson (1919 – 1972) broke the color bar in professional baseball in 1947. Robinson batted .311 and was a daring base runner. In 1962 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is a hero to this day. See The Jackie Robinson Story.

The “Kingfish” reference is to Huey Long (1893 – 1935), governor of Louisiana beginning in 1928. Long made social and economic reforms but abused the democratic process through massive use of patronage. Long was so powerful in Louisiana that some viewed state government as semi-fascist. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1931 and attacked the New Deal, advocating his own “share the wealth” program. He was assassinated in 1935. Source: New American Encyclopedia article on Huey Long. For more on Huey Long, see Learning Guide to “All the King’s Men“.

The Cajuns are descendants of French Canadians deported from Nova Scotia to Louisiana by the British in 1755. They have a distinctive accent and a separate language which is a combination of archaic French forms and English, Spanish, German, Indian and Negro idioms.

The scene in which masked riders burn the school and kill the teacher represents many similar incidents in which whites sought to prevent blacks from bettering themselves. Remember that before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write.

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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


2. Why did Miss Pittman wait until Jimmie had been murdered to support the effort to integrate the fountain in front of the courthouse?


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


1. For each of the major characters in the film, review The Six Pillars of Character and describe how the actions of the character embodied or violated the moral principles described in the Pillars. Did any of the characters grow or change in their understanding of ethical principles during the course of the film? If so, identify the characters and describe their growth.


2. Analyze the actions of any major character in the film applying two tests which any ethical action must pass: (1) The Golden Rule (Would the person taking the action want to be treated the same way? or to put it another way “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”) and (2) universality (Would there be a positive effect on society if everyone acted the same way in a similar situation?).


3. The plots of most films turn on one or more ethical choices which must be made by the characters in the movie. Which of The Six Pillars of Character, if any, are involved in the plot of this film? Tell us whether the ethical decisions made by the characters complied with the standards set out in the Six Pillars. Justify your opinion.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)



(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)



(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)



(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)



The novel by the same name as the film has been recommended for this age group. Other books recommended for middle school and junior high readers include: “Famous Firsts of Black Women” by Martha Ward Plowden.

This Learning Guide was last updated on July 21, 2013.

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Click here for TWM’s lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

For suggestions about using filmed adaptations of literary works in the ELA classroom, see Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories and Plays.

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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