The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a 1974 film adapted from the 1971 novel of the same name that was written by Ernest J. Gaines. The film offers a view into the history and experience of Black people from 1860 to 1962 through the eyes of Jane Pittman. A then 50-year-old Cicely Tyson portrayed the lead character from the age of 23 to 110 a role for which she became the first Black person to win a lead actress Emmy Award. (Sidenote: If you thought Ms. Tyson was slaying in her 90s check out the film to see an example of her slaying from back in the day playing a character half her age.)
I loved Cicely Tyson and liked The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman but I want to go ahead and get the things I disliked out the way. Most of my issues with the film were related to visual production. To begin with, I am not the biggest fan of movies from the 1970s because some of the acting can be over the top. I felt that was the case to a degree with some of the supporting and minor actors in the movie. Also, most films from that decade have a certain look and color that I find off-putting.
Made for television, the movie’s makeup and effects were probably considered cutting edge in the 1970s but aren’t very impressive now. Tyson was already a mature woman when The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was made but still looked very young so it was necessary to use makeup to show her aging. But, the texture of Jane’s skin when she is old appears plasticky, not in a static plastic surgery way but more so that it just looked unrealistic. And her appearance is especially distracting for a Black woman because most Black women even when very old don’t wrinkle in this manner. Their skin tends to be loose and soft looking with maybe crow’s feet around the eyes and lines in the forehead but not deep laugh lines or lines in the cheeks. (My sweetie pie great-great-aunt is coming up on 102-years-old and doesn’t have such deep wrinkles and neither did my great-grandmother who died at 92.)
With those criticisms out of the way, let’s move on to discussing The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
Miss Jane Pittman is a 110-year-old Black woman living in 1962 Louisiana when a journalist visits intending to interview her about her life. Pittman was born into slavery and the length of her life has allowed her to bear witness to substantial events and changes in the Black experience. In some ways, the film reminded me of the slave narratives, an oral history where the formerly enslaved shared their experiences. The genre dates back to the anti-abolition movement and continued into the 1930s when writers for the WPA Federal Writers’ Project traveled the country to interview the last surviving former slaves.
Pittman’s life story is told through flashbacks that begin in her childhood and move forward chronologically while occasionally returning to the 1960s. This is technically a fictional slave narrative as she was a slave as a child. She was around 10-years-old at the start of the Civil War so the majority of her life was spent as a free person. Yet, we get some insight into her early life and thus the broader experiences of the enslaved.
When the story begins a young female slave named Ticey (Valerie Odell) is growing up on a plantation in Louisiana. The mistress of the house is cordial towards both Confederate and Union troops, offering them her yard as a place to rest as well as refreshments. The Confederate soldiers don’t pay Ticey much attention though they don’t give her a hard time either. Conversely, the Union soldiers, or at least a colonel, takes an interest in Ticey and asks her about living conditions on the plantation. He encourages her to cast off her slave name and she chooses to rename herself “Jane”.
This is around the turning of the tides in the war but it’s not quite over as yet. Just imagine being a child living on this plantation where these people who consider you their property control every aspect of your life. They have the power to separate you from your blood family and also the alternative family you might create for yourself. From a very young age, you’re working all day without pay for someone else’s benefit. They dictate when you wake up for work and when you can retire for rest at night.
Our names are usually given to us at birth and despite having no say in the matter, it’s the word used to identify us through life. Parents choose a child’s name based on tradition, characteristics they hope the child develops, or what otherwise appeals to them. Ticey has grown up under suffocating circumstances where a seemingly small thing like choosing a name for herself is a big deal. Casting off the name “Ticey” and adopting the name “Jane” is a symbolic step towards freedom as she has now made a decision about her identity and who she wants to be. We see this when Ticey and the colonel go back and forth trying out different names and weighing the pros and cons before finally settling on “Jane”.
Jane’s enslaver gathers her and the others on his plantation to inform them that they are now free. He laments the loss of his slaves and offers them the choice between continuing to live on the plantation as sharecroppers or leaving. The former slaves look pensive and mournful while the news is being shared.
But I laughed when the camera cut to them having quite the celebration once out of sight of their now former slave master. Alone they could express their true feelings and be excited to have their freedom and imagine the possibilities it would offer. Though there is one older slave who can’t imagine life on his own without a master and attempts to sow doubt in the minds of the others. It’s an inspiring point in the movie to see the hunger for freedom and the willingness to brave the unknown for the chance to live life on your terms.
I liked the honesty of this point in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as it shows slaves wanting to be free rather than the image we get in some books and movies of the reluctant slave sadly leaving their benevolent owner. I don’t doubt that slaves who had lived together were sad to part from each other. But I’ve never bought into the idea that they were sad to leave their masters behind, especially not one like the mistress.
Jane joins the group that decides to leave the plantation with a little bit of food but no money or real prospects. Beyond the pressing uncertainty of their survival, there is also the looming threat of patty rollers. In reality, “patty rollers” or patrollers were groups of men who served as slave patrols, monitoring the movement of slaves as a means of exerting control and preventing escape. With the abolition of slavery and nothing better to do with their time, these individuals began what would become a decades-long push to keep the newly freed in social and economic bondage.
Something that has always hit home with me is that because of families being broken up during slavery, children were sometimes without their parents. They would be left to the mercy of and dependent on other slaves for survival. It speaks to human kindness that even amid such personal sorrow, these people who had nothing were still willing to share what little they had as well as love another person’s child. I think this is in part because they might have also been separated from a parent, child, spouse, or other loved one. They are then kind to others as a way of paying back the kindness that had been shown to them or in hopes that someone somewhere might be kind to their loved one.
And even these alternate families that would develop and the small comforts they would provide could be ripped away without warning. It’s a constant state of fear, stress, and unease. Slavery taught those involved in the trade to devalue the lives of Black people and the practice continued even after the abolition of slavery. Because of this, we see Jane violently cut off from the adults who had watched over her. She, with no one to look after her, is in turn left to watch over a little boy, Ned, who has no one else to look after him. And thus at a very young age, Jane becomes Ned’s adoptive mother.
Jane and Ned continue to travel alone in hopes of getting out of the area to somewhere that might offer more freedom. Along the way, they come into contact with several people who treat them in different but similar ways.
The first is a White lady in a house who they beg for a drink of water. She begrudgingly gives them the water but makes them drink from their hands as she won’t let them defile her dishes. The woman is mean to them because she blames them (ie: Black people) for the losses she and her family have endured. Yet here are these young kids half-starved out in the middle of nowhere because they have no parents. They have suffered incredible losses because of slavery but this woman can only see her problems. It speaks to the skewed perspective that many Southerners would adopt about Black people’s part in the war and provide excuses for their continued racism.
Contrast that encounter to when Jane and Ned later meet a Black man riding a wagon. He recognizes how young and helpless they look and taking pity on them allows them to take it easy for a while riding in his wagon. But they come across some raggedy-looking White men who are most likely patty rollers, he kowtows to them and makes up a story about the kids in his cart. I wasn’t quite sure of his reasoning (maybe due to embarrassment or for their safety) but soon after he put them off the cart. The man is kind to them but then abandons them when he feels threatened by the paddy rollers.
Arriving at the Mississippi River and just within reach of freedom, a measly five cents passage prevents Jane and Ned from crossing. Imagine ten cents being the thing that keeps you from freedom. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a bit like a series of unfortunate events. Each time Jane seems to be making progress, an obstacle arises or something happens to throw her off track. This is a stressful movie. But just imagine what this time was like in real life. Setting out with no resources in hostile territory with potential trouble at every turn in the form of poverty, paddy rollers, and racist people scheming.
Needing to support themselves, Jane and Ned find work on a plantation where they struggle and toil for years. During this time of Reconstruction, people come to town to get the formerly enslaved registered to vote. But any attempts the newly freed make to elevate themselves is met with resistance by having their places burnt down, schools closed, leaders lynched, etc. It’s like what slavery didn’t take from these people, the vigilantes (a form of the Klan) aimed to take away.
Having been robbed of benefiting from the fruits on one’s labors during slavery meant the newly freed were often starting with little to nothing. In theory, sharecropping should have been a great way for newly freed Black people to get on their feet. They could use their experience with agriculture and harvesting to earn money until they saved enough to buy land. But what became the reality of sharecropping just sets my soul on fire.
Struggling in slavery, getting freedom, and earning next to nothing if you were being paid at all. Working hard as hell and catching hell in the process while receiving no pay. Only to be set free and continuing to work hard as hell and often receiving no pay at the end of the year as a sharecropper. To add insult to injury when you decide you want to move on and do your own thing you might be extorted into selling all of your possessions to settle up debts that you likely don’t owe.
Within the story of Miss Jane is also the story of her adoptive son Ned, whose dedication to improving the lives of his people is incredibly admirable. I loved adult Ned’s monologue on the river bank about the history of Black people and the need for Black people to know themselves and be proud. He serves as a representation of all those lesser-known preachers, teachers, and activists whose names are lost to history but gave their lives in service to the Black community. The concept of the “Miseducation of the Negro” comes to mind where there is a continuous fight to keep Black people academically uneducated and also ignorant of our history so we don’t recognize the possibilities for our future.
There is a lot of loss and hard times in Miss Jane’s life but I think that overall it’s a love story. Throughout this woman’s long life she has these great loves that change, encourage, and shape her. There is the love of a child as a mother as in her relationship with Ned who she lovingly raises and fusses over until he’s a grown man. The brief but beautiful love story of Jane and Joe Pittman shows the romantic love of husband and wife. And most importantly, there is the love of self as shown in Jane’s belief that she deserves her freedom and a better life and her never giving up the push for those things.
At first glance, Jane might not seem as brave as Ned and some of the other characters but in such a life, surviving without losing your compassion or humanity is a form of resistance. Something interesting to note is that quite often history is told through the eyes of men, and most of the time it’s rich or otherwise noteworthy men. But here you have a part of the history of Black people being told through the experiences of a woman. And for this to have been created during the early 1970s is quite progressive for the time.
At the end of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Jane makes one final act of rebellion against the system that has been trying to oppress her since she was born. She joins the Civil Rights Movement by defying segregation laws to take a drink of water from a water fountain. It’s an incredibly fitting end to the movie as it refers back to the earlier points in Jane’s life.
It points back to when she was still an enslaved child on the plantation named Ticey. When soldiers arrived at the plantation Ticey was tasked with fetching water for them to drink. It’s sweltering hot yet Jane is moving about getting everyone water while they lay about resting. Later she and Ned beg the White lady at the house for some water and she pours it in their hands, refusing to give them a cup or other container. 100 years later Miss Jane Pittman takes a stand against the continued attempts to treat her like a second-class citizen. She walks up to a water fountain, doesn’t ask for permission, and gets herself a well-deserved drink of water.
I remember reading Roots when I was in high school and being totally enraptured by the book and thoroughly disappointed by the 1970s miniseries which took a lot of liberties and sanitized the story. With that in mind, while I liked the movie version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, I plan to also read the book to see if there are any major differences between the two. And also because I find that quite often, despite not having images or audio, books can provide a far richer experience in part because of details and also because you have to use your imagination. I recommend watching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman but I’m sure that once I get through the book, I’d recommend you read the story as well.
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