A Lesson Before Dying (1999)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama, Political Drama, Message Movie  |   Release Date - May 22, 1999 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 101 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Derek Armstrong

It's too much of a lesson to make for great entertainment, but A Lesson Before Dying wasn't made to sell popcorn. In fact, it wasn't even made for the theater. By 1999, cable was the only home for steadfastly earnest movies about soul-searching blacks in the South. Joseph Sargent's film tells an important enough story that it rewards HBO's investment. A Lesson Before Dying wasn't the first nor last such film for Sargent, a prolific TV director, but it did prove a departure for star Don Cheadle, whose previous characters tended to be more unsavory than well-meaning teacher Grant Wiggins. But like his hotel manager in Hotel Rwanda, which would earn Cheadle an Oscar nomination five years later, Wiggins starts out confused, even resentful about his unwitting mission. The film charts both his own growth, and that of the condemned man (Mekhi Phifer), whose self-respect was snatched when his attorney pleaded that executing him would be like executing a hog. The dehumanization of black youths, particularly their abandonment at the hands of the educational system, is rich enough material for a film on its own. But Ann Peacock's adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' novel is layered enough that it also tackles the divide between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks, and between the religious and the secular. Grant's unwillingness to be the mouthpiece for the church, when those around him swear it's the only way for the prisoner to find salvation, is the crux of much of the drama. All the performances are effective, but Irma P. Hall is the most moving as the prisoner's life-long caretaker, whom he painfully shuns after his imprisonment.