(Charles Burnett, USA, 1996)


Charles Burnett's Nightjohn is a stirring film.

This historical drama about black slavery, a telemovie made for Disney, has all the conventional stateliness and restraint of a William Wyler film.

But how utterly compelling it is – subtle, complexly shaded and novelistic in the best sense of the term.

A central scene, in which the young heroine (Allison Johns) sheds a private, secret tear in close-up as she gazes at the words in a hymnbook and understands them for the first time ("I be reading!"), can seem like the most powerful argument for classical narrative – and a radically humanist politics – offered by contemporary cinema.

MORE Burnett: The Blues, Killer of Sheep

© Adrian Martin March 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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