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"A Lesson Before Dying"

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Just two months ago in the big-screen True Crime, Clint Eastwood raced against the clock to save an innocent man from a lethal injection. Clint won, the clock lost, and this, of course, was fantasy. In A Lesson Before Dying (Saturday, May 22; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO), Don Cheadle races against another clock and the electric chair. But Cheadle is a schoolteacher rather than a journalist. And he's in Louisiana in 1947 rather than Hollywood in 1999. And so Mekhi Phifer dies instead of going Christmas shopping. And we are left to wonder who taught what to whom.

In Lesson, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines, Phifer is guilty only of being in a wrong place at a wrong time -- and maybe of believing his own lawyer, who argues that the electric chair is wasted on a creature with no more moral sense than a "hog." The remarkable Cheadle, stuck teaching in the same school where he'd first dreamed of escaping from Jim Crow to college, is prevailed on by Cicely Tyson and Irma Hall to comfort the boy in jail. A bitter agnostic, he finds himself at angry odds with the preacher Brent Jennings. There is a parable of slingshots, a pageant of the Magi, and a parade of children who have come to say good-bye. We are reminded of what will follow almost immediately after 1947, when all the teachers and all the preachers got together in Birmingham and Montgomery and Meridian; when all the children who had somehow learned "not to be broken" suddenly said a disobedient hello.


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