'Sudie and Simpson' a coming-of-age tale and much more


Now here's something nice: A made-for-cable film that manages to believably evoke an older time and place in all its ugliness, while also projecting charm and hope and even a strong message of relevance to today.

The movie is "Sudie and Simpson," premiering at 9 tonight on the basic cable Lifetime service (with repeats Sept. 14, 15 and 17). Louis Gossett Jr. and Sara Gilbert (Darlene on "Roseanne") are the stars, and the loosely autobiographical novel "Sudie" by Sara Flanigan (who adapted the screenplay) is the source.

In the film's rural Georgia setting, in 1943, signs are posted warning blacks (with the usual derogatory term), "don't let the sun set on you in Linlow." Gossett plays Simpson, a man who has surreptitiously taken over an abandoned farm outside of town, and Gilbert is Sudie, a local schoolgirl who befriends him.

On their first chance meeting, however, both are terrified. She has never seen a person of color and believes the hateful mythology of her elders. He fears she will reveal his presence, asking, "How soon you think it'll be before I'm hanging from one of these trees?"

The predictable theme of discovering mutual humanity is well handled. But soon woven into the narrative comes an unexpected, quite current element: sexual child abuse. For Sudie reveals to a friend that a white teacher has paid her and other girls to perform intimate acts.

What is more, Sudie's cultural and religious understanding makes her believe such things are "another one of the curses" women must bear because of Adam and Eve's original sin. Thus she feels she is the sinner.

As we have come to know in modern times, this sense of guilt and shame is a strong reason why many young victims of sexual abuse fail to reveal it to adults.

Disclosing more of the story here would spoil the drama. It takes no great leap to predict the black man will ultimately be suspected of the crimes.

Yet "Sudie and Simpson," directed by John Tewkesbury, skillfully balances the elements of racism and sexism along with a touching coming-of-age story, neither preaching nor falling into too-familiar patterns.

There are some stereotypes, but other characters neatly deflate them, especially Gossett, Frances Fisher as the new "Yankee school teacher" (another species unfamiliar to young Sudie) and John Jackson as the town doctor.

Young people, particularly, will find an absorbing film of useful depth and substance.

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