Sarny (Allison Jones) is born into slavery and separated from her mother at an early age. She's raised by Dealey (Lorraine Toussaint), who promises early on that "nuthin' too bad" will happen to her young charge. Clel Waller (Beau Bridges), who owns the plantation, is a cruel man, who sees the slaves only in terms of their monetary value. Life on the plantation changes when Clel buys Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly), a hulk of a man, with scars across his back from the whip. Branded as a troublemaker, Nightjohn has trouble earning the trust of the other slaves. But one night when their work is done, he offers to make a trade with Sarny to get some tobacco. In exchange, he begins to teach her the alphabet. Sarny is fascinated and takes to learning with passion, but when the other slaves find out, they are afraid. Old Man (Bill Cobbs) shows Nightjohn how he's been punished for his own literacy; his thumb and forefinger have been chopped off. But Nightjohn explains that he gave up a chance to escape to the North so that he could teach. "Words are freedom, Old Man," he explains. "That's all slavery is: words." Sarny reads the love letters that she delivers from Clel's wife (Kathleen York) to an educated doctor who lives nearby, and she reads Clel's ledger, in which he lists the monetary value of all the slaves. She soon learns that knowledge, for all its dangers, brings a certain power. Nightjohn was directed by venerated independent filmmaker Charles Burnett (To Sleep With Anger) for the Disney Channel. It's based on the young adult novel by Gary Paulsen.