The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974)

Rated PG

Starring: Cicely Tyson, Richard Dysart, Michael Murphy and Odetta

Rated: PG Drama

Based on the award-winning and critically-acclaimed 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a story that follows the extensive life of its protagonist.

The film opens with Miss Jane Pittman (Cicely Tyson) celebrating her 110th birthday.  Set in Louisiana during the early 1960s, Quentin Lerner, a White journalist (Michael Murphy), visits her to learn the long-storied life of Miss Jane.  His interview is especially significant as the arrest of a young Black girl who attempted to drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain has recently made the news.

Through flashbacks, Miss Jane recounts her experiences, stemming from having been born into slavery during the 1850s to experiencing the Civil Rights Movement.

Broadcast by CBS in 1974, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was a powerful made-for-television film that garnered the same type of accolades as the novel upon which it was based.  It was groundbreaking for its humane treatment of African-Americans, even honoring cultural traditions and linguistic stylings such as dialect.  Spellbinding in its incredible parallel of detailing life for Blacks in the United States through the lens of Miss Jane Pittman, the movie brought to light the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans to many of its viewers.  Aspects of this detail include significant events and themes of the Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction, sharecropping, education, abuse of power and the Civil Rights Movement as well as persons such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Jackie Robinson and Fred Shuttlesworth.

Premiering three years before the showing of the miniseries Roots, which was based upon the novel by Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn, produced by Roger Gimbel and directed by John Korty.  While the film does differ a bit from Gaines’ novel, overall, it remained true to his written work. 

The research Ernest Gaines undertook to create the narrative was so authentic, that many believed this work to be true.  In “A Conversation with Ernest Gaines” in Humanities, the esteemed author shared with writer Bill Ferris that, “Some people have asked me whether or not The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is fiction or nonfiction.  When Dial Press first sent it out, they did not put ‘a novel’ on the galleys or on the dustjacket, so a lot of people had the feeling that it could have been real … I did a lot of research in books to give some facts to what Miss Jane could talk about, but these are my creations.  I read quite a few interviews performed with former slaves by the WPA during the thirties and I got their rhythm and how they said certain things.  But I never interviewed anybody.”

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman was nominated for a BAFTA Award; however, the coup was its 1974 sweep of winning 9 Emmy Awards, notably for “Outstanding Special – Comedy or Drama”.  Cicely Tyson won 2 Emmy Awards for her performance as Miss Jane Pittman: “Best Lead Actress in a Drama” and “Actress of the Year – Special”.  Stan Winston and Rick Baker won “Outstanding Achievement in Makeup” for their incredible work in transitioning Tyson from a 23-year old woman to a 110-year old elderly lady.  Bruce Walkup and Sandra Stewart won “Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design” and hairstylist Lynda Gurasich won “Outstanding Achievement in Any Area of Creative Technical Crafts”.  Wynn won “Best Writing in Drama” and Fred Karlin won “Best Music Composition for a Special Program”.  Korty who won an Emmy for “Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series”, received the Directors Guild of America Award.

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