The Piano Lesson is a 1995 TV film starring Charles S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard. It is directed by Lloyd Richards and based on a play of the same name written by August Wilson. The original play was a great hit on Broadway and received a Pulitzer prize in 1990. The Piano Lesson is a great example of how to turn a sophisticated play into a breathtaking movie.
Point of Attack
The story takes place in the 1930s in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The protagonist Boy Willie is a watermelon salesman traveling by truck across the states with his friend Lymon. They came to Pittsburg to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece, a widow living in their Uncle Doaker’s home with her daughter Maretha. In fact, they came to sell the old piano inherited from their ancestors. Sutter, a descendant of a man who owned Willie’s family, died and now Boy Willie needs money to buy his land.
The first turning point takes place when Bernice refuses to sell the piano. The story becomes mystical when she sees a ghost of Sutter calling Boy Willie’s name (Piano Lesson 11:07-14:27). Bernice is not surprised by this, because she believes that Boy Willie is responsible for the murder of her husband. He denies both accusations and claims that Sutter was killed by ghosts.
The second turning point happens when Doaker reveals to Lymon a tragic story explaining why it is impossible to sell the piano. Originally, it was bought by Sutter as a gift for his wife in exchange for Doaker’s grandmother and her son (Piano Lesson 34:37-41:47). Sutter’s wife, missing her two beloved slaves, asked Bernice’s husband to carve their portraits on the piano, supplemented later by the depictions of their ancestors. Decades later, Boy Willie’s father decided to steal the piano from Sutter, but was killed together with his companions, and, as a result, they all became ghosts. Boy Willie disagrees with Doaker: he suggests that his father would sell the piano to afford his own land and free himself from the work for somebody else.
The next day Boy Willie comes to the house with Lymon aiming to take the piano and sell it but is stopped by Berniece which leads to the film’s climax. The sky darkens as the characters are ready to kill each other for the piano (Piano Lesson 1:22:20-1:36:30). For the first time in many years, Bernice sits down at the musical instrument and calls for ghosts of her ancestors to stop Boy Willie, which helps to resolve the situation. Boy Willie agrees not to sell the piano only if Bernice and Maretha play it.
Boy Willie is the protagonist of the story – he is an ambitious and purposeful young man, who pursues his goals and achieves them. He is daring and bold and no authority exists for him, would it be racist restrictions of the 1930s society or ominous ghosts of the past. For Boy Willie providing a prosperous life for his descendants is preferable to preserving memories.
Bernice is the main opponent of Boy Willie in the story. She is an honest and hard-working woman with strict moral principles. Bernice’s story is regrettable: both her father and her husband tragically died. The piano means a lot for her and her uncle Doaker because it is their family heirloom: they believe that no money or land would be a substitute for this musical instrument.
Avery is another opposite of Boy Willie in the film: he dreams of selling the piano to found his church, but unlike Boy Willie, he is a more indecisive and abiding person. In contrast to self-employed Boy Willie, Avory works as a modest elevator operator. He is not popular with women – Bernice refused to marry him. The characters of Lymon and Wining Boy are placed in between the conflicting parties. Caring but naive Lymon at first follows his friend, but later leaves the family alone, understanding he has no right to interfere. Wining Boy’s only purpose in life is gambling and drinking, however eventually he sided with Bernice.
The throughline of the movie is the story of the piano which draws on family disputes and dramatic moments. The film starts with the scene of an invisible entity playing the piano, the instrument is the main stumbling point that breeds conflict. It has a dramatic background story that affects every family member, and it stays in its place despite all the attempts to eliminate it.
Theme and Symbolism
This point is closely intertwined with the film’s theme: the running concept of the movie is the historical memory. Boy Willie and Avery were trying to sell the piano to forget their history and organize their lives in the white man’s world. At the same time, Bernice didn’t want to let go of the past, she was literally haunted by it. Eventually, the family made peace with its background of chattel slavery. Ghosts in the movie symbolize the shadows of the past that continue to haunt the characters. However, they also have an allegorical meaning for characters. If they try to forget their history, it will still remind them about itself.
Overall, the movie leaves a good impression after watching. Lloyd Richard’s decision to shorten the story made it look more spectacular. It is impossible not to sympathize with both parties to the conflict wishing them to find a compromise. The actors did a great job to create believable characters showing a whole range of emotions. They have noble intentions, but it’s hard for them to understand each other, because of different life attitudes. The Piano Lesson is a decent film that teaches us the necessity to remember our history.
The Piano Lesson. Directed by Lloyd Richards, Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1995. Youtube. Web.