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Despite a few faults, HBO's "A Lesson Before Dying" is a smart, insightful, thinking-person's film.

A Lesson Worth Learning

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"A Lesson Before Dying"
HBO
Debuts at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 22
Repeats on May 25 and 30 and June 3, 9, 12 and 14

Remember what it was like in high school, when the teacher would always tell the smart kids how much more she expected of them? Even now, in "real life," when you're good, they always want more.

It's the same way with "A Lesson Before Dying" on HBO. It's good. Even "very good" would not be too strong. However, it lets its audience down in a couple of spots. Not so much, mind you, as to make it not worth watching. But when you're caught up in a well-written, finely crafted and well-acted story such as this, even a minor distraction can become a major irritation.

"A Lesson Before Dying" is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Ernest J. Gaines, who also wrote "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." Set in rural Louisiana in 1947, the story centers on Jefferson (Mekhi Phifer), a black youth who has wrongly been convicted of murder and is awaiting execution, and on Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle), who is teaching in the same one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child.

Jefferson is devastated by his wrongful conviction, but sympathy for him is hard to come by. Only his godmother, Miss Emma (Irma P. Hall), and her friend, the teacher's aunt (Cicely Tyson), stand by Jefferson. And both unite forces to persuade a reluctant Wiggins to visit Jefferson in prison to teach him how to die like a man.

Powerful stuff — and the cast and Emmy-winning director Joseph Sargent wisely realize the value of understatement throughout: It's the words that make the audience think, and "A Lesson Before Dying" is nothing if not a thinking-viewer's film.

It's the film's central questions that fascinate: What one lesson is it important to teach someone who's about to die? And what do you want to bet that the teacher learns as much as his student does?

Cheadle ("The Rat Pack") and Phifer (The Tuskegee Airmen") are perfect foils for each other, their yin and yang personalities so forcefully expressed that you wonder who will break first. Hall, who so successfully played the juju woman in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," is equally successful in a far different role, that of salt-of-the-earth, determined matriarch. And Tyson, whose long and triumphant career was springboarded by Gaines' "Miss Jane Pittman," brings assurance and grace to Wiggins' Tante Lou.

But then there are those pesky irritations. At one hour and 40 minutes, "A Lesson Before Dying" is too long by about 15 minutes. Not so coincidentally, that problem could be solved easily by cutting out the talky chunks in which the story strays away from its central theme. When "A Lesson Before Dying" assumes that the audience is smart enough to follow along without having to be beaten about the head and shoulders, it soars. Conversely, it sags when it explains too much.

Nonetheless, "A Lesson Before Dying" will doubtless be a strong Emmy contender this year. And it should

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