From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1996). — J.R.
Charles Burnett’s fifth feature (and the first he didn’t write), made for the Disney Channel in 1996. Adroitly scripted by coproducer Bill Cain from Gary Paulsen’s sketchy and rather lurid short novel for young adults, this is a powerful, skillful tale about one antebellum plantation slave (the title character, played by Carl Lumbly of To Sleep With Anger) teaching another slave (the narrator, a 12-year-old girl played by Allison Jones) how to read. As a parable about empowerment through reading this is at least as strong as Fahrenheit 451, and as a didactic fairy tale about the relationship between slavery and literacy it’s even stronger. In keeping with their Disney origins, Burnett delivers the story and drama in broad strokes, though he depicts even the white villains with humanity and some complexity (as in his only other film involving white as well as black characters, The Glass Shield). A wonderful, fully realized work — passionate, stirring, and beautiful. With Beau Bridges, Lorraine Toussaint, Bill Cobbs, and Kathleen York. 95 min. (JR)