Ernest J. Gaines began his long walk to renown in 1959 when a story of his won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, named for the influential San Francisco Chronicle book critic. Encouraged, Gaines began to rework a novel that he had first written and burned at sixteen after New York publishers rejected it.
In 1964 Atheneum published Catherine Carmier, a novel about the love between a dark-skinned African-American man and a lighter skinned Creole sharecropper's daughter. Gaines plowed a related furrow three years later in the novel Of Love and Dust, also about tangled affairs of the heart among whites, blacks, and Cajuns. Bloodline came out in 1968, gathering three previously published stories and two new ones.
Seemingly refreshed by this return to short fiction, in 1971 Gaines produced his breakthrough book, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the saga of a 110-year-old African-American woman from the Civil War to the 1960s. The CBS adaptation of Miss Jane Pittman, released three years later, redefined what a television movie could achieve.
That same year, Gaines published his only work for young people, the little-known A Long Day in November. He then took seven years to publish the novel In My Father's House, about a civil rights leader confronted by living proof of a long-ago indiscretion.
In 1983's A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines borrowed the detective story form for an exploration of racism's lingering cost. The story begins when a white man is found dead and several African Americans step forward with competing claims of responsibility.
If a writer can have a second breakthrough book, Gaines achieved it 10 years later in A Lesson Before Dying. With its inexorable momentum and bitter, stifled narrator, the novel struck a nationwide chord, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and won the coveted National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 2005 Gaines came back with Mozart and Leadbelly, which contains five stories, an extended conversation with two scholars, and half a dozen essays, including one apiece about writing Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying. A year later, The Baton Rouge Area Foundation afforded Gaines the chance to pay forward an old favor. That's when the foundation endowed the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, to honor an African American for a book-length work of fiction—much as the Jackson Award had launched Gaines nearly half a century earlier.
The challenge of programming a traditional month-long film festival around a good writer is either too many interesting movies or not nearly enough. Ernest J. Gaines is the exception. All four television movies made from his work reward close viewing, and Gaines may stand alone as the only author whose adaptations have earned two Emmys for outstanding telefilm, plus a third nomination in that category for another.
Ineligible for an Emmy at 46 minutes, The Sky Is Gray (1980) was a short film in the much-missed "American Short Story" series, made possible originally by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Olivia Cole plays Octavia, an impoverished Louisiana mother trying to stretch a few coins far enough to cover bus fare into town, dental care for her young son, and maybe a hunk of salt meat for the two to share. An adaptation of Gaines's story of the same name, The Sky Is Gray returns Gaines to the 1940s parish of his childhood for a delicately moving parable of interracial kindness and cruelty.
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) remains the best known among the films made from Gaines's work. Lovingly adapted by Tracy Keenan Wynn from Gaines's novel about the panoramic life of a 110-year-old black woman, it won not just Outstanding Special but four other Emmys as well, including one for Cicely Tyson's towering performance in the title role. Not only does Miss Jane Pittman appear regularly on lists of television's proudest events, but it's hard to imagine the landmark miniseries "Roots" ever getting produced without Miss Jane Pittman's precedent to cite.
The playwright Charles Fuller, who also wrote the script for The Sky Is Gray, adapted the likewise Emmy-winning A Gathering of Old Men (1987) from Gaines's 1983 novel. Brilliantly acted by a cast including Louis Gossett, Jr., Richard Widmark, Holly Hunter, and a gallery of such great character actors as Woody Strode, Julius Harris, and Joe Seneca—plus musicians Sandman Sims and Papa John Creach—A Gathering of Old Men honors a vanishing Louisiana so faithfully that a viewer can hear and almost smell the canebrakes burning.
Finally, Ann Peacock's careful television adaptation of A Lesson Before Dying (1999) does full justice to Gaines's popular novel. Don Cheadle plays Grant, Mekhi Phifer the doomed Jefferson, and Miss Jane Pittman herself, Cicely Tyson, contributes a wily turn as Tante Lou. Directed by the underrated TV veteran Joseph Sargent, whose nearly only widescreen foray was the magnificent The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), A Lesson Before Dying is no substitute for the novel, but the perfect lagniappe after finishing it.