When I first learned that Charles Burnett had made a film about slavery that was produced by Disney I was quite skeptical to say the least. Nightjohn is without question Burnett's most accessible movie I've seen, telling a full account of slave life in the eighteen-fifties. The film is from the point-of-view of a young slavery girl, Sarny, whose mother was sold away from her at a very young age. She has little hope in her life until the arrival of Nightjohn, a slave whose hiding a secret which changes Sarny's life forever. While compared to Burnett's other work Nightjohn can be a bit didactic, melodramatic, and contrived but overall this is a powerful tale of the importance of education and literacy. Nightjohn is a film that doesn't simply set out to tell the audience that slavery is bad, which is certainly shown in spades, rather it's a film that views illiteracy as a central adjunct of slavery. Burnett wisely makes this his central theme, making Nightjohn work on two levels. This film isn't only a emotionally powerful history lesson but a call to action centered around the importance of knowledge and education, something which is very apparent even today. While the script can leave something to be desired, Burnett's impressive visual design and the cast's strong performances completely won me over as the film progressed. Although a one-dimensional character, Beau Bridges portrayal of the slave owner is maybe some of his finest work. Carl Lumbly as Nightjohn and Allison Jones as Sarny, who together are the bloodstream of the film, both give great performances as well, each playing extremely well off each other. Charles Burnett's Nightjohn is not the quintessential slavery film but it's an underrated film in an underrated director's filmography that deserves a look.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.