"Nightjohn," the TV movie premiering at 8:30 p.m. Saturday on the Disney Channel, is ostensibly about a young African-American slave girl and the price she and others paid for her learning to read and write.
Based on a highly-praised book for young people by Gary Paulsen, "Nightjohn" has been turned into a powerful film that works on several levels, thanks to outstanding performances under the direction of Charles Burnett, best known for "To Sleep with Anger."
Sarny, the young girl, played by Allison Jones, is cared for by her surrogate mother, Delie, played by Lorraine Toussaint. (Sarny's real mother was sold after Sarny's birth.) Nightjohn, a new slave at the plantation, played by Carl Lumbly, strikes up a friendship with Sarny and tells her he can teach her to read and write, even though this is forbidden. Proving once again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Sarny's fascination with reading sets several things in motion, all of them leading to trouble. At the end, Sarny has been sold to another plantation; still as she rides away, you know somehow she'll survive - and triumph.
"Nightjohn," unlike most TV movies, sticks in your mind long after it's over, partly because scripter Bill Cain has turned Paulsen's book into a multi-leveled portrait of pre-Civil War South.
There's no attempt to romanticize or prettify what life (and slavery) were like. One of the most striking characterizations in the film is provided by Beau Bridges as the plantation owner. In most films and stories, plantation owners are either portrayed as wicked Simon Legrees - or else they're caring individuals who really want to look after their slaves. Bridges' powerful portrait of Clel Waller combines the two, leaving you wondering how the two strains could co-exist. One minute he's joking with his workers - but when crossed, as he often is in this movie, he's likely to grab a gun and threaten to shoot someone.
You come away from "Nightjohn" not only impressed all over again by the resilience, the strength against enormous odds that African Americans had to have just to stay alive, but also intrigued and puzzling about how plantation owners developed a mindset that let them believe it was perfectly OK to own (and mistreat) slaves. One minute Waller is being perfectly sincere as he worships in his church; the next he's enraged, threatening to kill Sarny. He can't see the gulf between the pieties he's been mouthing and his frightening behavior.
"Nightjohn" has its violent scenes - a whipping, the chopping off of a finger - but Bridges' portrait of a slave owner is far more frightening than the more familiar scenes that regularly turn up in films about slavery. The result is a somber film that nevertheless holds your attention with its complex portrait of life in the mid-19th century South - and helps to explain why we still have such difficulty dealing with the aftermath of that time.
Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford appear on AMC's interesting series, "The Movie That Changed My Life," tonight at 9 . . . Attention, "Les Miz" fans: Four chances to see PBS' extremely popular "Les Miserables in Concert" when it is repeated at 2:30 p.m. and midnight Saturday on KCTS-TV and at 6:30 and 11:45 p.m. Sunday on KBTC-TV, as fund-raising specials . . . At 6 a.m. Sunday the Cartoon Network premieres "Big Bag," a new hour-long weekly children's series, combining live action, puppetry, music and cartoons, created by Children's TV Workshop in collaboration with the Cartoon Network . . . What IS character? That's the provocative subject, as it relates to presidents, explored by a diverse panel of writers in "Character Above All," an interesting PBS special, anchored by Jim Lehrer, that repeats at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on KCTS-TV . . . In another timely repeat, given the current flap over gay marriage, CBS airs a fine "Schoolbreak Special," "Other Mothers," co-starring Joanna Cassidy and Meredith Baxter as two lesbian partners raising their son, at 11 a.m. Sunday on KSTW-TV. . . Indestructible Carol Channing is among the stars scheduled to participate in CBS' telecast of The Tony Awards at 9 p.m. Sunday on KSTW-TV . . . The History Channel will begin a repeat of "Roots" at 10 p.m. Sunday . . . If your idea of fun is looking at roller coasters and listening to people scream, you'll love the Discovery Channel's "Wild Rides," repeated at 3 p.m. Sunday.