James Agee was one of those Tenessee boys who wanted to be a great writer and who, like all sons of Adam, settle for what he was.

In his time and place he was a good writer, and that particular kind of good writer whose readers like him better than he deserves. There is no higher praise.

The Tennessee Arts Commission put up $50,000 for a 90-minute film about him, written and directed and produced by Ross Spears, made three years ago and shown last night in the American Film Institute series at the Kennedy Center.

President Cater was in the audience with the other buffs of film or of Agee.

At the end of the show he grinned and shook the filmmaker's hand, and listened to the questions and answers after the film, then unobtrusively left the theater. There was none of that pushing and shoving of the Secret Service and has marked recent presidencies, no ropes and cordons -- and yet he seemed as secure as most.

The film reviewed Agee's life, from childhood in knoxville to death in a New York cab from a massive heart attack.

Agee used to work for Fortune, a business magazine, where reasonable efforts were made to teach him to write business articles. There efforts largely failed. He was, after all, a writer.

But Forune sent him to Alabama, the Middle South, where he accumulated facts about white tenant farmers. Some of them, with whom he lived, still live and appeared in the film.

Their teeth are none of the best. Some spoke bravely into the camera.Others spoke only off-camera.

A poet, Robert Fitzgerald, who appeared on the show, said they must have been the least of God's flock, and if the Lord is a money-changer they surely are.

Jim Agee wanted to gather them like chicks underneath his wing. And if it were in any wise possible, he wanted to be worthy of their trust. It is thought he succeeded in this.

He wrote about them in a book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."

He also wrote the script for a celebrated picture show, "The African Queen," and another book, "A Death in the Family," and a slender book about the vigil of Maundy Thursday. He was a religious fellow.

He was a delicate guy as well. Being mortal and imperect, he once or twice knocked a guy through a wall with his fists. Yet he was a gentle, sort of, in the heart.

He understood the dignity of the poor. He feasted at the freshness that comes from way down.

His three marriages were three marriages. His love life was not conventionally successful.

He drank too much and smoked too much.

President Cater, whose foibles are not those, appeared in the film to say he always liked Agee's stuff, even before he concluded Agee's prose is classic.

The longest segments are interviews with an Episcopal priest, named Father Flye, who taught him as a boy and with whom he corresponded the rest of his life.

I wonder if people know Father Flye has just turned 95," President Carter said from the audience after the show. People were pleased.

The sound was a tirfle flawed, and the film, like most such documentaries, was not overly polished. It moved some who saw it. It gave up trying to be a gorgeous film, and settled for showing a beautiful guy.