A courageous young slave girl discovers the true meaning and perilous consequences of freedom in this powerfully inspiring story. Based on the novel by Gary Paulsen.
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Harry Mention, an enigmatic drifter from the South, comes to visit an old acquaintance named Gideon, who now lives in South-Central Los Angeles.
Sarny (Allison Jones), a 12-year-old slave girl in the ante-bellum South, faces a relatively hopeless life. Her chief duties at the plantation of Clel Waller (Beau Bridges) are serving at table, spitting tobacco juice on roses to prevent bugs, and secretly conveying intimate messages between Waller’s wife, Callie (Kathleen York), and Dr. Chamberlaine.
Then Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly) arrives. A former runaway slave who bears telltale scars on his back, he takes Sarny under his wing and, in exchange for a pinch of tobacco, secretly begins to teach her to read and write, a crime punishable by death. “Words,” he says, “are freedom. Slavery is made of words: laws, deeds and passes.” He starts by drawing letters in the dirt, and cautions her that no one must know. At her baptism, Sarny steals a Bible that belongs to Waller’s son, Jeffrey, and practices reading by lantern-light in the slave quarters. The same Bible serves another purpose when, on a blank page taken from it, Nightjohn forges a pass for Outlaw (Gabriel Casseus), a young slave, to use in escaping to freedom in the North with his beloved Egypt, a slave on another plantation. Waller finds the Bible and demands to know who stole it. Delie (Lorraine Toussaint), who cared for Sarny as a child, fears for her now and accepts the blame. But Nightjohn forestalls the lashing Delie is to receive, saying he’s the one, for he can read. He tries to run away but is caught, and his hand is tied to a chopping block. With an ax, Waller delivers the severing blow, exacting the brutal penalty for Nightjohn’s literacy. As he is dragged off to be sold, he tells Sarny, “When they cut off one hand, the other hand grows stronger.” That night Sarny writes a pass for Egypt that will let her join Outlaw on the flight to freedom. Two days later their escape is discovered and the false passes found. Waller knows Nightjohn wrote Outlaw’s pass. But who wrote the second? He interrupts a church service to demand the answer, threatening to kill all his slaves if no one tells. Sarny confesses, but declares he’ll kill no one, for the slaves represent his wealth. As Waller raises his rifle, Sarny implores Callie to speak up for her, hinting that she has read the messages to Dr. Chamberlaine. Callie refuses, but the doctor, fearful Sarny will reveal the relationship, says he’s at fault. He tells of teaching Egypt some reading and writing, but now declares it was a mistake. Callie orders that Sarny be sold, and as the girl is joined to a line of other slaves, she asks if any of them has tobacco to trade. What has she to give in return? They want to know. And Sarny draws an A in the dirt.
J.J. is a rookie in the Sheriff's Department and the first black officer at that station. Racial tensions run high in the department as some of J.J.'s fellow officers resent his presence. His only real friend is the other new trooper, the first female officer to work there, who also suffers similar discrimination in the otherwise allwhitemale work environment. When J.J. becomes increasingly aware of police corruption during the murder trial of Teddy Woods, who he helped to arrest, he faces difficult decisions and puts himself into grave personal danger in the service of justice.
When the sheriff's department's lone black officer suspects foul play, he plans to expose the corruption that is rampant within the justice system.
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