Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored (1996)

Based on Clifton L. Taulbert's critically-acclaimed book, Once Upon A Time…When We Were Colored is a sensitive memory film of the author's coming-of-age in the segregated South. Emmy-nominated actor Tim Reid makes an impressive directorial debut with an emotionally quiet saga that chronicles a momentous era in black communal life, one mostly neglected by American films.

This well-made pic, which will be released by Republic on Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend in a handful of screens, has some cross-over appeal as family fare and should be seen in major urban centers before landing on TV, Cable, and other venues like schools.

Contrary to most black films of the last decade, there's no “action,” no drugs, and not much violence in Once Upon a Time, an evocative film in which black characters actually get to live long lives and die in their beds of natural causes. This in itself doesn't make for a great film, but it points to a significant effort to “correct” black history by recording its rich traditions and celebrate unadorned heroes who have inspired black youngsters and paved the way for the Civil Rights movement.

Set in the small town of Glen Allan, Mississippi, Once Upon A Time presents a warm tribute to the black heritage that prevailed in the Deep South of the post-War years. Sprawling narrative sheds light on what it meant to grow up in this particular time and place, and at the same time captures a sweeping, panoramic view of black culture as it was experienced on a daily basis.

Composed of three parts, story begins in l946 with a baby's birth in the cotton fields, then jumps to l951, the film's longest chapter. Born to a single mom, Cliff (Charles Earl “Spud” Taylor, Jr.) is raised by his great grandparents, Ma Pearl (Paula Kelly) and especially Poppa (Al Freeman, Jr.), a proud, elegant man who initiates his offspring into a harsh life imposed by the whites. It's Poppa who teaches Cliff his first words (“Whites Only” and “Colored”) and it's with him that the boy observes a Ku Klux Klan parade, where he first experiences blatant racism. But it's by no means a dreary, depressing childhood. Loose-knit script is laced with fond anecdotes of rich adventures, like fishing trips, communal picnics, trips to the neighboring “big city,” attending the first minstrel show, above all life in a tightly-knit community.

The film doesn't contain many white characters, but the few existing are commendably non-stereotypical. In the second, l958 chapter, Cliff (Willie Norwood Jr.) helps out Mrs. Maybry (wonderfully played by veteran Polly Bergen), a liberal woman who introduces him to literature and checks out books from a library that still bars blacks. Most of Cliff's interactions, however, are with his great aunt (Phylicia Rashad) and her son Melvin (Leon), who visits from Michigan after a long absence.

Concluding segment is the most overtly political, revolving around Cleve (Richard Roundtree), a decent iceman who sparks a flame of racial protest in the community, when his livelihood is threatened by discrimination. Saga ends in l962, with Cliff's fateful but inevitable departure for the North.

It's hard to do justice in a short review to a film that holds so many incidents and characters, all remarkably played by an ensemble that includes Freeman, Rashad, Leon, Roundtree, and others. But overly episodic structure presents a problem: Protagonist Cliff often gets lost in the maze, and the narrative fails to register the effects of the dramatic happenings on his psyche and soul.

An actor, neophyte helmer Reid is sensitive to his performers, but he gives the story a too monotonous pace; pic moves to a far graver tempo than is usually the norm. Tale's static quality is made more visible by an excessive running time of at least 15 minutes. Once Upon a Time lacks the magical and touching quality of a film like Sounder, which it resembles thematically. But the movie's evocative texture and multi-nuanced context, magnificently recorded by John Simmons' alert camera, honorably compensate for its weaknesses.

Credits and Cast

A Republic Pictures release of Bet Pictures presentation of a United Image Entertainment production. Produced by Michael Bennett and Tim Reid. Executive producer, Butch Lewis. Co-producers, Clifton L. Taulbert, Paulette Millichap. Directed by Reid. Screenplay, Paul W. Cooper, based on Taulbert's book. Camera (DeLuxe, color), John Simmons; editor, David Pincus; music, Steve Tyrell; production design, Michael Clausen; art direction, Geoffrey S. Grimsman; set decoration, Kristen McGary; costume design, Winnie D. Brown; sound (Dolby), Michael A. Patillo; supervising producer, Freddye Chapman; casting, Jaki Brown-Karman. Reviewed at a Republic screening room, L.A., Jan. 4, l996 (In Palm Springs Fest). Running time: 112 min.

Poppa……….. ………….Al Freeman, Jr.
Ma Pearl…………………….Paula Kelly
Ma Ponk………………….Phylicia Rashad
Miss Maybry…………………Polly Bergen
Cleve………………….Richard Roundtree
Cliff (at 5)..Charles Earl “Spud” Taylor, Jr.
Cliff (at 12)………….Willie Norwood, Jr.
Cliff (at 16)………………..Damon Hines

Narrated by Phill Lewis. With Salli Richardson, Anna Maria Horsford, Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes, Willie Norwood, Karen Malina White, Damon Hines, and others.