The television movie, “The Pride of Jesse Hallam” (1981) seems almost forgotten in contemporary times. The movie’s relevance is found in the star, Johnny Cash, who plays the title character, and his portrayal of a working man facing a real problem, and the topic of illiteracy.
Johnny Cash and the ethos of Americana
In “the Pride of Jesse Hallam,” the title character is a coal miner from Kentucky who moves across the river with his two kids to Cincinnati after his wife died. The move is also advantageous because his daughter is in need of surgery for her back that she can’t get in their southern town. The family tries to make the best of it–the kids will have a new high school, and Jesse will have to get a new job, but Jesse is determined that everything will work out, mostly because he is a hard worker. There is nothing wrong with Jesse’s work ethic. The problem is, by 1981, it was difficult to get work in urban areas if a worker was illiterate.
The movie’s scenery is rather sparse, and in retrospect the low-budget, grainy look creates nostalgia, rather than impatience. There is no sense of glamour anywhere. The gray streets, Hallam’s old truck, simple houses, and the utilitarian environs of the high school, all add up to the authenticity of a working man’s world.
Cash could have taken on projects that allowed him to play characters that reminded audiences of his music career. But this is Cash. A performer who created the persona of a criminal for a song and performed in a prison. Cash never looked down on working-class people, and that was probably why he inhabited the role of Jesse Hallam so completely. Viewers forget from time to time that they are watching a music legend.
Why “The Pride of Jesse Hallam” matters
Even in an age where education is prized, and online education has been a staple of grades Kindergarten through college for several years, America still faces challenges in regard to illiteracy. In 1981, functional illiteracy was more widespread, and in some ways, probably easy to hide until, well, it wasn’t, as Jesse finds out.
Cash portrays Hallam as a simple man–he want to work, he wants to care for and guide his family. But his inability to read and write is a roadblock. His son’s academic difficulty prompts both older and younger Hallams to enroll in night school.
After getting angry at his fate, Jesse accepts his need for more education, and throws himself into his coursework. A particularly funny scene shows night school students not taking the class seriously. Jesse gets up and restores order. This classroom scene has a teachable moment. Cash, as Jesse, shows viewers that students should respect teachers, and students should take their tasks seriously.
As the title character of “The Pride of Jesse Hallam,” Cash proves that his everyman persona was not an act, but part of his code of ethics. Viewers did not have to be country music fans to appreciate Cash’s no-nonsense portrayal. While portraying Jesse Hallam, a fictional character, Cash taught audiences to accept their personal issues and their solutions with maturity.