Director: Stan Lathan.
Starring: James Bond III (John), LeVar Burton (Davis), Shelley Duvall (Laura), Tony Haney (Monroe), Julius Harris (Leo), Marian Mercer (Mrs. Ruffner), CCH Pounder (Jane), Thalmus Rasulala (Stepfather), Judge Reinhold (Newt), Shavar Ross (Booker T. Washington), Mel Stewart (Reverend Rice).
An intense desire compels Booker T. Washington to learn to read, although it is a crime for blacks in the 1860s South.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
The teacher Laura rides on a horse that is led by Booker T. Washington, a young black boy. When they reach the school, Laura tells Booker to go back home because they are waiting for the horse. But Booker doesnít go straight home. He hangs out by the window to hear what is going on in the classroom. His friend sees him and he tells the teacher. Laura comes over to the window to ask Booker if he is trying to get her in trouble. Slaves are not allowed in the schools.
Bookerís mother says that Booker has yet to learn the full meaning of what it means to be a slave. As Booker walks the horse back he sees a black slave run past him. He is being pursued by the dogs of the slave chasers. They catch the runaway.
When Booker returns home his mother notices that he is upset. She asks him whatís wrong and Booker says the chasers beat the runaway and then dragged him.
The young master of the house Newton returns wounded in the leg from the ongoing Civil War. He is still dressed in his Confederate uniform. Newt is determined to get everything on the farm all straightened out and back to its glory days before the war. He tells Jane, Bookerís mother, to tell the other slaves that the "easy times is (sic) over."
At night the slaves talks about Master Newt. The consensus seems to be that Newt was never worth much. The talk is also of the war. One slave says he hears that the Yankees are getting near to Richmond. Booker asks his mother if they will be free then? She says they will if the Yankees win the war. The group discusses what they are going to do with freedom. Bookerís mother wants to find her husband, who is the step-father of her children.
Booker plays with his white friend. The young fellow says that his Uncle Newt is a hero, but Booker doubts that very much. When he sees Miss Laura again he asks her to teach him how to read. Laura says that itís against the law to teach Negroes to read.
The slaves take their lunch break, but Newt with a pistol stuck in his pants shows up acting very tough. He tells them that they have to get back to work without their lunch. They have to finish plowing the field today or they will have to work on Sunday. One young slave says thatís not fair. They have always had off on Sunday. Newt doesnít care. The defiant slave adds that thereís not much sense in planting crops because the Yankees are just going to get them anyway. At this Newt slaps the slave. The slave wants to hit Newt back, but a big slave grabs him and tells him not to make the Master kill him.
Booker in the woods runs into some Yankee soldiers. They tell him that the war is over and now he is free. Booker rushes home to his family.
Bookerís family are getting ready to leave the farm. Laura gives Bookerís mom some corn for the journey. As the mule and wagon leaves, Bookerís white friend runs up and yells goodbye. The family first heard from their stepfather/husband when the wagon and mule arrived at the farm.
They are leaving Franklin County, Virginia and heading to Malden, West Virginia. They talk about what they are going to do in Malden.
The family reaches Malden and mom asks a man on the street where they might find Wash Ferguson. The man gives them directions. Mother and Wash Ferguson grab each other tightly, so glad to see each other.
Booker wants to go to school, but his stepfather tells him there are no colored schools around here. And Booker and his brother John have to work with him over at the salt factory. The three of them have to fill huge barrels with salt all day long.
Come payday the employer pays very little for the work of the two boys Wash feels a bit cheated, but there is not much he can do about it.
One day Booker hears a black man in the remnants of a Yankee uniform reading from the newspaper to a group of blacks. Booker wants so badly to read.
Booker runs down the sidewalk and runs into Mrs. Rufner. All her packages fall onto the sidewalk. She is very angry at Booker and scolds him. As she walks away, Booker tells her that heís sorry.
Booker and others sing a hymn in a make-shift black church. The Reverend tells the congregation that they have a special visitor: Wilhelm Davis. He is the black man who read from the newspaper. Davis gets up and tells the people that he is from Columbus, Ohio. He reads something to the congregation.
Rev. Wright would sure like Mr. Davis to stay and teach him and his congregation. No one can read and write, but they sure want to be able to do it. Davis says he was a cook in the army and he thought he might return to that occupation. But the congregation so wants to read that he starts to soften. The Reverend sweetens the deal by saying that he can stay with various people at their homes and when the church does get some money they will give him some of it. Davis agrees to teach them.
One day Booker says to his stepfather that he ainít gonna work no more. His stepfather becomes very angry and tells John to get him his belt. Mom tries to tell him that Booker didnít mean anything by it, but Wash isnít listening. With the belt, heís ready to strike, but thereís something about Bookerís ways that he decides against it. He goes to work.
One day Mr. Davis comes to the house. He gives Mrs. Ferguson a package. Mom opens it and finds what she wanted. Itís the Blueback Speller. Mom tells Davis: "God bless you, Mister Davis." She gives the book to Booker who is ecstatic.
Stepfather, however, is not ecstatic. He tells his wife that she is leading Booker down the wrong path by filling his head with all kinds of big dreams. Wash tells her he is trying to teach the boys how to work and survive. He adds that things arenít all that different from the time of slavery. He can hardly put food on the family table. Mom listens but tells her husband that maybe their children can do better than they did if they just give them a chance. Dad doesnít say anything back to this.
Dad lets Booker go to school now. But Booker also has to work. The almost daily routine is to work at the salt furnace, go to school and go back to work at the furnace. At night Booker starts teaching his brother, sister and mother how to read. Mom is ready to quit, but Booker shows her how to read her own name, Jane. She is excited again about reading.
Payday arrives again. The boss pays Wash $8 dollars. Wash thinks itís not enough and asks the boss, but the boss just tells him that the figures donít lie. (But of course he knows Wash canít read, write or do arithmetic.) But Booker can. He tells his stepfather and the boss that 2 plus 3 plus 5 doesnít equal 8, but 10. The boss tells Booker that he is wrong, but a white man agrees with Booker. The boss is embarrassed and gives Wash the extra $2 dollars.
The boss is not happy. He hints that things are getting slow at work and he may have to let Wash go. Then the boss tells Wash that the boy belongs in school, not at work. (In other words, he doesnít want Booker embarrassing him any more.)
Booker gets a job working from Mrs. Rufner. His mother knows her because Jane does the womanís washing. Booker says he doesnít want to work for Mrs. Rufner. She is just too mean. Mom tells her son that Mrs. Rufner used to be a school teacher. She might be able to help him with his education.
Booker goes to Mrs. Rufnerís house in the early morning. When she sees him she says heís too early. Itís not a good start. Mrs. Rufner gives him a great many tasks to do. There are so many that he canít even remember all the things she told him to do. So he suggests that she write them down on a list. Mrs. Rufner is shocked. She didnít know Booker could read.
Mrs. Rufner had to be away from the house for awhile. Booker goes into the library room and is awed by the many books the family has. He pulls out one to look at it, but is shocked whe he hears Mrs. Rufnerís voice as she comes into the house. Booker hurriedly tries to put the book back, but in the process he knocks over a vase and it smashes in pieces. He hides from his employer.
Mrs. Rufner comes into the library mad. She wants to know what happened to the vase and why was Booker in the library room. Booker gets intimidated by the woman and runs out into the yard. He stops under a tree and thinks a minute. Booker returns to Mrs. Rufner telling her that he wants to work and he will pay for the broken vase.
Mom narrates that Booker left Mrs Rufner four times. But he always came back. One day Booker asks permission to read in the library room and Mrs. Rufner says "yes". Over time the woman and the boy became special friends. Booker was good company for the woman.
At church for the first time the Reverend is able to read a passage from the Bible. The congregation applauds him. But the Reverend says save the applause for Mr. Davis. They are honoring Mr. Davis for having completed one year as a teacher for the children. Near the end of the service, Mr. Davis has Booker read from a challenging text. Booker is not perfect, but he does a very good job, especially considering his age. His mother and stepfather both cry.
Six years later, Booker T. Washington left home to attend Hampton Institute. He graduated in 1875 and went on to found the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He rose to become a leading educator, a famous spokesman for black Americans and an advisor to three US presidents.
A short movie (less than an hour) but thoroughly enjoyable. It is a success story. The one time slave Booker T. Washington finally learns to read and write after having seen the white children going to school. Itís the old triumph over adversity story, but itís done in a charming, fun way. And the movie provides some insights into slavery and the hard times that follow its end.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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