I started out watching The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman with an expectation of a positive experience: after all, the production had won nine Emmy awards, and though it had been many years since I'd read the novel it was based on, my recollection of the book was positive. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
In the thirty years since this made-for-television film's release in 1973, I think some things have changed, including the overall quality of television programming and the expectations viewers have for television productions. Overall, there's still an inordinate amount of garbage on television, just as there is in other media as well, but I'd hazard a guess that the standard for the very best television productions has risen considerably. At least that's one way to explain the fact that I found The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to be so underwhelming.
Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, this fictional biography focuses on Jane, a 110-year-old black woman who in 1962 is being interviewed by a magazine reporter. Jane's character is itself entirely fictional (though the film tries to present her as a real person), and indeed her great age and remarkable memory are a storytelling device allowing us to see many of the major events of the late 19th and 20th century through the eyes of a single viewpoint character.
The events themselves are certainly both varied and interesting, from the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the struggle by newly freed blacks to establish new lives in the face of prejudice, to the civil rights movement and protests of the 1960s. But somehow it never really works. In terms of pacing, the story is caught in an awkward limbo between not having enough time to really tell a story at any given moment in time (unlike Roots, which established itself firmly at each point in time) and spending too long on fairly uninteresting parts of the story, like ordinary travel.
The tone is similarly uneven, varying between hokey melodrama and rather dull realism. What's worse is the occasional note of condescension that creeps into the story. The most striking of these is in an early scene in which the young Jane, then known as Ticey, has a conversation with a Yankee soldier. He tells her that Ticey is a "slave name" and that she should pick a new name; he offers some possible names, of which she chooses "Jane." It's completely patronizing ... and the scene is played completely straight. We are, I believe, intended to view Jane's adoption of the new name as a liberating moment.
While Cicely Tyson earned an Emmy for her performance as Jane, I really didn't find her acting to be anything more than adequate, although in that sense it's better than some of the secondary actors, who are all very earnest and not very convincing. What grates even more is the fact that the music is used in a very heavy-handed way to underscore the scenes: there's no doubt about what we "should" be feeling. Unfortunately, this intrusive use of the music actually has a distancing effect, especially since the music itself is a bit strident and in general not very appealing.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is presented in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Unfortunately, it looks terrible. The colors are the worst part of the transfer, which fluctuates between having a grayish, muddy tint and having a bright orange tint. The switch from gray to orange sometimes happens in the middle of a scene, and it's quite startling. The orange-tinted scenes are, obviously, not natural-looking, but neither are the gray ones, which present the scene's colors in a flat, muddy, and generally lifeless manner. The print is also very noisy and abundantly sprinkled with print flaws, along with being rather blurry.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack offers little by way of clarity. Voices sound muffled and unclear, and a substantial amount of the dialogue is simply unintelligible. Cicely Tyson's wavering old-lady voice used in the narrative voiceover might have added character to the film if it had decent audio support, but as it is, her voiceover sounds harsh and is often difficult to understand. The music portion of the soundtrack tends to be a bit overly loud and is also slightly harsh.
There are no special features for this DVD. The menu, after a non-skippable introduction, is simple and practical.
Personally, I found The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to be disappointingly dull and poorly constructed. I'm going to have to recommend that viewers simply skip this DVD. Unfortunately, even viewers who enjoyed the program when it originally aired on television will want to pass, due to the poor video and audio transfer.