Promoting Literacy With A Film
Turning reading into a story
James Earl Jones promotes literacy with Hallmark filmGenerations ago, James Earl Jones' great-great-grandmother, an Irish indentured servant, taught his great-great-grandfather, an African slave, how to read.
"Of course," Jones says, "it was forbidden. Slaves weren't allowed to read because they might get some wisdom about what was wrong with their lives and why slavery was not right. To cut down on the rebellion and the enlightenment, there were laws passed so that slaves couldn't read.
“And I find it an irony that it's so hard to convince generations of young black people of the importance of reading. In other words, something that was forbidden before, now it's highly encouraged, but some people, on their own, reject it, not just reading but learning and education."
Emphasizing he's neither a sociologist nor an activist, Jones has taken the best route available to an actor to discuss an important subject - he did a movie about it."
I wouldn't call it activism," Jones says. "That's called influence. The reason I didn't become active politically is I thought, being an actor, I would be able to affect thought- if not change - the way people feel about things. I was very grateful to have that access to resort to."
Reading with a plot
Airing tomorrow at 9 p.m. on the Hallmark Channel, "The Reading Room" - endorsed by the National Center for Family Literacy - features Jones as William Campbell, a retired businessman who has just lost his beloved wife Helen (Lynne Moody). After the guests leave the memorial service, he plays a video recorded during her last days, in which she asks him to use their money and personal library to open a community reading room in a storefront business he owns in his former inner-city neighborhood.
While opening the reading room isn't that difficult, keeping it open proves to be a formidable challenge."
I had to keep the mission clear in my head doing the movie," Jones says, "that this was not his idea. It was his wife's idea. The focus was to take the books out of the library where you would never use them and put them someplace where they can be used. That's the whole mission. His only virtue is that he's very stubborn about it."
Along the way, Campbell reaches out to a young thief (Douglas Spain) by offering him a job as a security guard and to a bright 8-year-old (Gabby Soleil), who asks for help learning to read so she can then help her literacy-challenged mother.
Ironically, one of Campbell's biggest challenges comes from local clergyman, the Rev. Rashid Rahim (Georg Stanford Brown, who also directs).Rahim questions Campbell's motives and his book collection, saying he needs more titles that are relevant to the community's ethnic makeup. Always arriving accompanied by big men in suits, Rahim is a menacing character."
I told Georg I would not do the movie unless he did the reverend," Jones explains. "I said, 'I'm not coming near it unless you are the other guy,' and I'm very happy that he did it, because he was able to bring all the colors to that character, the good and the bad."
"The Reading Room" also features Tim Reid ("Frank's Place"), Joanna Cassidy ("Six Feet Under") and Kathryne Dora Brown, daughter of the film's director and actress Tyne Daly.
Obviously, a movie such as "The Reading Room" is meant to encourage reading and literacy, but Jones feels that, ultimately, what you take away from the film is related to what you bring to it.
Refraining from a message
"In my years of being an actor," he says, "I learned not to have an agenda about the message. My job is to figure out the essential statement that the story makes, but beyond that statement, it cannot be a message. A message means that it reaches somebody's ear and affects them. That's the job of the receiver more than the sender.
"It's not that I don't have any hope, I don't like to prejudge what somebody will get out of a movie. There are messages, but they're made up of the questions that the audience brings to it themselves. Most of us have questions that we have never voiced, but we all have questions. You see a movie, and the message we get is the one that answers the questions we have innately."
To pretend that you have something that will bypass that - I don't believe that. I don't like to declare that there's a message."
For example, Jones remembers being affected by something he saw in the 1952 movie "Viva Zapata!" a biography of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (Marlon Brando)."
On his wedding night," Jones recalls, "he can't sleep. He's also become the leader of a nation. His wife asks him 'What's wrong?' 'I can't read.' And he said it with such anguish."
My [then preschool-age] son did that one day. We made a habit of reading to him, and one day he said, 'I can't read, Dad. I wish I could read. I want to be able to look at the book and see what it says myself, instead of having you tell me.'"I had a problem in my own childhood, being a stutterer. While I was not illiterate, I was practically illiterate, because I couldn't share. I couldn't get the words out because it was shattered, broken, stuttering and stammering."