The Vernon Johns Story (1994 TV Movie)
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James Earl Jones delivers an all-round stunning dialog playing the reverend of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama - a name that most should recognise.
He constantly oversteps his mark when preaching, telling the people who let the white americans run their lives what he -really- thinks of them, cowards, and as he gains more and more attention - eventually demanding to be served in a white-only cafe, but at the end of the film there comes a fantastic little twist.
A very worthwhile watch!
Black doctors and lawyers go to Dexter Avenue. As Deacon Wilkes, a mortician, drives Dr. Johns across town in his fine car, they pass a number of poor blacks. Deacon Wilkes points out that those aren't Dexter Avenue people. Dr. Johns says none of us are better than "the least of these".
The church is packed for Dr. Johns' first sermon. Some people have to stand outside and listen through speakers. What Dr. Johns says is not what these people want to hear, more than likely. The specific scripture is not mentioned in the movie, but the story is recorded in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man went to Hell and saw Lazarus in Heaven, and begged Lazarus for water.
Dr. Johns sees prejudice against his people. He tells his children they will walk to school rather than riding a segregated bus, and that his family will not deal with segregated businesses. He begins telling his members they should do business with other black people, not with the whites who only want their money. To set an example, he grows his own watermelons and other produce, embarrassing his members by selling them outside the church.
Dr. Johns wants to see change, and he preaches to his members that they must be held accountable for not doing more for their own people. Deacon Wilkes is content with the progress his people are making, but Dr. Johns is not. As he takes steps to make change happen, he gets white people angry in Montgomery, and he upsets his own members as well.
The movie ends with Dr. Martin Luther King taking over as Dexter Avenue's pastor. Eric Ware captures the civil rights leader's style so effectively, I just wonder if a recording of King himself was used.
James Earl Jones gives his usual fine performance, with a bonus. Of course, Dr. Johns is kind and caring when he can be. But he is stern and demanding with his children, who still know he loves them (No licking ice cream--it makes you look like a dog! Being teased builds character!). He will not back down from those who want to stand in his way. And he gets angry! He is a powerful preacher, but not charismatic in the way King was.
Other outstanding performances come from Joe Seneca as Deacon Wilkes, Mary Alice as the wife whose patience with her husband is running out, and Tommy Hollis as Deacon Hill, a football coach who stands up for Dr. Johns after realizing he is right.
Nicole Leach has an angelic singing voice. She also does a capable job playing Dr. Johns' oldest daughter. Cissy Houston displays even more talent than her more famous daughter Whitney--as Rose the pianist, she refuses to play spirituals. That's just not done here! As an actress, she shows a lot of attitude. She has a wonderful singing style as well.
Certain words are used here that rarely make it onto network TV these days. The expression abbreviated "G. D." was apparently bleeped from the Golden Globe Awards, for example, but Dr. Johns uses it twice. And the N-word is said numerous times. Also the nickname for a cute masked mammal. There is also a beating similar to that of Rodney King, and we see the aftermath of a rape.
As is often the case with movies such as this, my people are not portrayed in a positive way. Most whites here are hateful. Judge Blake wants to keep blacks subservient and likes the attitude of Deacon Wilkes, who goes along with what he says. One white doctor insists on treating a black patient, but he is warned what will happen if he does.
This is an important movie for all to see. A number of people had to stand up for what is right to make change happen, though this movie differs in one important area you'll just have to watch to see. As with other movies like this one, blacks and other minorities will see how things were and how they shouldn't take for granted their current status, though it is not perfect. Whites will be reminded how they shouldn't behave.
The change that took place in the older daughter was at the expense of much pain but her decision to go for the higher cause will always be the price of change.
James Earl Jones is thoroughly convincing in the role and he delivers the performance of his career in this true story.
He breaches the barriers of white prejudice and tells it like it is for the white power that existed then, and alas, at times today. Jones is ably supported by a great cast and intelligent script and direction. I loved the freeze frames fading to black and white.
Well done, all! 8 out of 10.
In the early 1960s, as a college student, I was a white Civil Rights activist in Mississippi, and as such, I viewed with the deepest possible disgust the predecessors of today's equally-bigoted louts. It was the segregationists then, and today, it's the more mild-mannered and somewhat less blatant cultists of the "Religious" Radical Right. The ignorant and deceived people who seek to FORCE tens of millions of women to gestate unwanted pregnancies to term against their will (a very real, 9-month-long form of rape!), and who regard gays to be second-class citizens on the ludicrous basis of something so trivial as the way they choose to have sex in private. The 21st century thus is little better than the mid-20th. The bigots and their targets have changed, but the abject ignorance and hatefulness has not, and continues to poison American society.
Unfortunately, America still has a LOT of growing up do do, and there's still a lot of bigotry to dispose of. Civil Rights Movement II is as important to tens of millions of people as was the first one. Women and gays NEED a leader for today of the stature of leaders like Rev. Vernon Johns.