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‘Nightjohn’ a Tale About Hunger to Learn

Education is the basic key to freedom and success. It’s not surprising, then, that during this country’s long history with slavery, literacy among slaves was outlawed in some regions.

A surviving body of work by black writers, poets and journalists of the 18th and 19th centuries proves, however, that the hunger to learn wouldn’t be denied, whatever the odds.

Tonight’s Disney Channel film, “Nightjohn,” a sensitively crafted family drama based on Gary Paulsen’s award-winning young-adult novel, is about that hunger, in the face of life-threatening brutality.

Talented young newcomer Allison Jones is appealing as Sarny, a fiercely independent little slave girl determined to learn all that a literate new slave, Nightjohn, has to teach her, even though the penalty for being caught is the amputation of two fingers.

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Carl Lumbly turns in a powerful performance as Nightjohn, a man whose wealth is his literacy. Although he was once had been a free man after escaping, he returned to slavery in order to pass the torch. “Words are freedom,” he tells Sarny, who eventually uses her new knowledge to outsmart the cruel plantation owner (Beau Bridges in a thankless role), his wife and her lover.

Some others among the dynamic cast include Bill Cobbs as bowed but not broken Old Man, Gabriel Casseus as star-crossed lover Outlaw and Lorraine Toussaint, a standout as Delie, Sarny’s dignified, protective foster mother.

Director Charles Burnett lets the actors’ expressive faces and keenly observed small moments tell much of the story, which was effectively adapted by playwright Bill Cain.

* “Nightjohn” airs at 8:30 tonight on the Disney Channel.

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