This screenplay is based on a remarkable true story — two teenagers, one black, one white, both girls, team up to defeat the deep-seated prejudices of their time. It all takes place against the background of the birth pangs of the nation, when 'patriots' were pitted against 'loyalists' and parents against children.
A young African girl is captured in Senegal and shipped to Boston. She is acquired by a Boston family, the Wheatleys, and given the name ‘Phillis Wheatley’. Her talents are soon recognized by the daughter of the house, Mary Wheatley, also a teenager, and Mary secretly embarks on a project to teach Phillis to read, write, even to study Latin.
Soon Phillis is writing poetry, but she faces scornful disapproval from an unlikely source — Deborah, an older woman slave, who joined the household many years before and appoints herself Phillis’ surrogate mother. Deborah steadfastly refuses to give up her pride as a black woman unjustly made captive and tells Phillis to keep her distance from the evil seduction of their white masters.
When Mary persuades Phillis to show off her skills in front of a group of the Wheatleys’ friends, Phillis fails, and forgets all she has been taught.
Or did she? Was she perhaps doing what Deborah wanted, pretending ignorance so as to remain uncorrupted by the new world she finds herself in?
Mary thinks so. And she insists that Phillis keep up with her studies.
These conflicts become even more personal when Mary’s brother, Nathaniel, learns the secret of his sister’s daily sessions with Phillis. At first, he scoffs but then, realizing her talents, he agrees to help nurture them. He is drawn to her too, in a budding romance which neither knows how to deal with.
While the three teenagers plot to prove their parents wrong about the young slave girl, citizens of Boston are taking to the streets, stirred up by the fiery rhetoric of John Wheatley’s old business partner, Samuel Adams.
British Redcoats are brought in to quell the unrest. Nathaniel is swept up in the revolutionary fervor. Defying his father’s orders, he joins the ‘patriots’ protesting the infamous Tea Tax and is among those killed when the Redcoats open fire on demonstrators in Copley Square.
The Wheatleys are devastated. Phillis writes a poem memorializing Nathaniel. Mary, seeking to console her father, shows him the poem. She asks him to see that it’s published. He agrees, but no one will believe a young slave girl could write so well. Wheatley takes the rejection as an attack on his honor and - worse — an insult to the memory of his dead son.
Using his friendship with the Governor of Massachusetts, Wheatley arranges for Phillis to appear before a panel of 'Judges', who will settle the question once and for all as to whether a ‘slave’ girl is capable of writing the talented poems the Wheatleys claim are her work.
While Phillis prepares for her test, Deborah redoubles her efforts to dissuade her from succumbing to the lure of being accepted by white society. They will never truly admit she is their equal, says Deborah. Better to deliberately fail the test and remain true to the culture that gave her life and from which she was cruelly uprooted.
Phillis is torn, and when Deborah reveals a terrible secret from her own life before she came to the Wheatleys' house, it seems that Phillis is ready to follow the older’s woman’s advice.
The day of the test, when Phillis must appear before the judges, is also the day when one of vessels carrying tea, in which Wheatley has an investment, is due in Boston harbor.
Sam Adams warns Wheatley to be careful; Send the ship away. Don’t unload the tea. To defy the mobs is too dangerous. He will be tarred and feathered, ruined, driven out of the city.
Wheatley is too proud to give in and makes his case to the protesters at Faneuil Hall.
As Wheatley argues for his freedom to honor his business contracts, Phillis is answering questions from the ‘Judges’ appointed by the Governor to determine whether she is indeed the author of the poems attributed to her.
It is a bitter sweet victory for Phillis. Deborah knows she has lost her to the world of the white conquerors. But she also knows Phillis has to make her own way, and that the world of white folks is her world too now.
The outcome for Wheatley is also difficult. His friendship with Sam Adams spares him the worst of the rebels’ wrath, but his cargo is spilled into the waters of Boston harbor in the famous Tea Party.
He spends that night awake, a musket in his lap, ready to defend his family if the mob comes looking for him. He is joined by Phillis, who brings him tea, and a copy of her latest poem, a lament for her lost world back in Africa.
In a final scene, we flash forward to 21st century America. A mother and daughter, played by the actors representing Deborah and Phillis respectively, are kidding each other — the mother wants her daughter to read Phillis’ poems, the daughter says they are old hat.
Through the scene we learn that the mother is a surgeon at a nearby hospital, a graduate of Yale Medical School, and the daughter is doing well as a math major in college. The mother is called away to an emergency at the hospital and the daughter, left alone, picks up Phillis’ poems and reads from them — the same poem that Phillis read to Wheatley on the night of the Boston Tea Party.
I young in life by seeming cruel fate Was snatched from Afric's fancied happy seat What pangs excruciating must molest What sorrows labor in my parents' breast Steel'd was that soul and by no misery moved That from a father seized his babe beloved Such, such my case...
As the screen fades to Black, the rest of the poem appears on screen
But how, presumptuous, shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th' almighty mind
(O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race?
POSTSCRIPT: There is more to this story. Phillis went on to fame, and freedom, attracting the attention of George Washington, even traveling to England and being feted there.