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'Lesson' poses big questions

How shall we live? That question is at the heart of Ernest Gaines's powerful 1993 novel, "A Lesson Before Dying."

It is also the driving question at the heart of the television movie adapted from that novel (HBO, May 22, 8-9:40 p.m.), an excellent, beautifully acted, star-studded event calculated to hearten even the most jaded.

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But the drama does more than shake up complacency. It is one of those rare stories, almost fully realized on the small screen, that reminds us to ask the great questions of ourselves and to choose our answers wisely.

It takes place in the late 1940s in rural Louisiana. Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer), a black man in his early 20s, is accused of murdering a white man. All the evidence shows him only to have been a bystander - certainly not guilty of murder.

At his trial, Jefferson's defense lawyer tries unsuccessfully to sway the jury toward leniency by characterizing him as "a hog" rather than a man. The appellation destroys what little dignity Jefferson has left.

Miss Emma (Irma Hall), his elderly godmother, persuades both the well-educated schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle), and the preacher, the Rev. Ambrose (Brent Jennings), to convince Jefferson that he is a man before he is executed.

But reaching the embittered, hopeless young man is more than either the preacher or the teacher can manage at first. Grant especially must learn to penetrate Jefferson's frigid isolation, patiently and persistently, with the warmth of personal understanding.

In so doing, Grant is himself transformed. Both men choose selfless answers to the problem of injustice - selfless answers to the difficult questions of their experience.

"If there is a message, I think this is it," said the novel's author, Mr. Gaines, in a recent interview, "that regardless if one has five months to live [as Jefferson does], or 50 years [as Grant might], there is a responsibility to oneself and to each other.

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"I was trying to show how these two men help each other. Grant helps Jefferson understand that he is a human being, and Jefferson does the same thing for Grant. Grant will go on and continue to teach, and teach well, caring for the children, because of having known Jefferson."

Neither the book nor the film falls into the clichs of prison films in general - the social conditions are revealed subtly, the qualities and variations in relationships illuminated naturally.

When Miss Emma asks the plantation owner to use his influence over the sheriff, for example, she reminds him of all she has done for his family, revealing as she does the rich white man's debt to her, despite her status.

Racial injustice may be the condition under which the characters find themselves, but the way they choose to live speaks to all people of every color and condition.

How shall we live, with dignity or without it? How does one become a whole person? What shall my life mean - will it be all for self, or for others as well? The fact that the answers are arrived at humanely, believably, with the inevitability of ancient truths is what makes this film so powerful - and what will turn viewers back to the novel as well.

"Mark Twain once said that the aim of writing should not be to preach and teach," Gaines says, "but the end result should do both ... [honor] is the thing that comes through....

"I happen to be African-American, and so I use the tools I know best. I have the same background as Grant. I went to a little church school, knew the same sort of people, the same sort of little town, the work people did. My grandparents sang in a little church like this one. I knew all of this.... [But] this is not just about two black men in the South. These things can take place anywhere in the world."

It's also about redemption. Producer Robert Benedetti ("Miss Evers' Boys") adds, "At first Grant is blind to the innate dignity and richness of his own culture. And he learns as much from Jefferson about being a man as Jefferson learns from him.... He has been a head without a heart, and he comes out of this experience a whole person."

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