Shadrach

L.A. Indie Film Festival 1998–Susanna Styron, daughter of the famed writer William Styron, makes an unexciting feature directorial debut in Shadrack, an adaptation of her father's 1978 short story, which was published in Esquire. Set in the South in the height of the Depression, tale centers on a poor, large family as it faces a moral dilemma when an old black man, a former slave, arrives in their land and requests to be buried there. It's doubtful that Harvey Keitel and Andie MacDowell (both cast against type), who play the parents, can elevate the marketability of a film that lacks genuine conflict and drama.

Theatrical prospects are dim for a picture whose old-fashioned, earnest sensibility and level of execution are more suitable for the small screen.

Styron and Bridget's script, which extends to the limits of a narrative what's basically a small, simple and poignant story, suffers from being both literal and literary. Indeed, if it were not for the foul language used by the white trash but decent father, Shadrack is the kind of well-intentioned picture that could have easily come out of Disney and comfortably play as an After-school Special.

Set in the small town of Tidewater, Virginia, the saga is framed by the narration of Paul Whitehurst (voice provided by Martin Sheen), who reflects upon three momentous days in the summer of 1935 when, at the young age of 10, he experienced some bizarre, unanticipated events that precipitated his coming of age and forever changed his outlook.

The only child of a respectable, well-educated, middle-class family, Paul (Scott Terra) lives a lonely existence, defined by a strict father (Darrell Larson) and a terminally-ill mother (Deborah Hedwall). Raised to be a proper gentleman, Paul is expected to dress up for dinner, go to church, be polite to his folks, and so on. The little fun in his life comes from playing baseball, marbles and going to the movies.

To escape his mundane life, Paul befriends the Dabneys, a lower-class family that lives in a ramshackle house surrounded by old, rusted machinery, broken furniture, and an assortment of animals that get the same treatment–and food–as the large pack of unkempt children. Early on, there's a shot of a wall painting of the old Dabney plantation, a reminder of much better days. As descendants of proud aristocratic stock, the Dabneys have fallen on hard times ever since the Civil War and particularly during the Great Depression.

Vernon (Keitel) is a decent but emotionally-volatile patriarch, who blames FDR for his personal impoverishment–to survive, he bootlegs liquor. Vernon is married to the warm-hearted, down-to-earth Trixie (MacDowell), who's always seen with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon. There's little evidence for a better future, but Paul finds the couple and their seven children irresistibly appealing, leading the kind of fun-loving, free-wheeling life that's very much missed from his own.

Using the paradigm of the outsider, picture introduces Shadrack (John Franklin Sawyer), a 99-year-old former slave, who, one hot summer day, appears out of the blue in the Dabney's household. During the opening credits, he's seen walking barefoot all the way from Alabama to Virginia so that he can die and be buried on the plantation were he was born into slavery. Shadrack presents his request not only as a personal wish, but also as a moral right.

The appearance of the mysterious stranger creates conflicts within the family, aggravated by the prevalent racism in the society at large: Shadrack's desire to be buried on Dabney's soil is a strict violation of Virginia law. Rest of the saga details how Vernon overcomes his innate racism, harsh poverty and discriminatory law to grant Shadrack his final wish.

It's unfair to fault the actors for failing to give the mildly interesting yarn texture, color and drama, for neophyte helmer Styron lacks the requisite technical skills to transfer the story onto the big screen. With the exception of a few touching and humorous moments, Shadrack is listless, meandering from one sequence to another in a lethargic pace that calls even greater attention to the limitations of the source material for a feature-length narrative.

MacDowell's range as an actress has always been limited, but here she's given no substantial role to play other than look deglamorized, smile and reconcile–and walk around with a beer bottle in her hands. The far more gifted and reliable Keitel also has hard time to find the right emotional balance of his patriarchal character; even the outbursts and polluted lingo–a Keitel staple–are not very commanding. In the title role, Sawyer is mostly asked to look kind, dignified and noble, though for most of the tale he rests passively in bed, with everyone around him waiting for him to expire. As the central figure, Paul, from whose POV the story is told, child-actor Terra acquits himself honorably.

Tech credits are mediocre, but Van Dyke Parks' score is so schmaltzy and insistent that it manages to muffle several key scenes that are actually well-acted.

Credits

A Millennium Films presentation in association with Nu Image of a Bridgett Terry production. Produced by Bridget Terry, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson. Executive producers, Jonathan Demme, Steven Shareshian, Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Elie Samaha. Directed by Susanna Styron. Screenplay, Susanna Styron and Bridget Terry, based on the short story by William Styron. Camera (DuArt, color), Hiro Narita; editor, Colleen Sharp; music, Van Dyke Parks; production design, Burton Rencher; set decoration, Valerie Fann; costume design, Dona Granata; sound (Dolby), Larry Long, Carl Rudisill; assistant director, Kevin Moore; casting, Tracy Kilpatrick. Reviewed at the DGA (in L.A. Indie Film Festival), L.A. April 17, 1998. Running time: 86 min.

Cast

Vernon…………..Harvey Keitel
Trixie…………Andie MacDowell
Shadrach…..John Franklin Sawyer
Paul………………Scott Terra
Little Mole……….Daniel Treat
Edmonia………..Monica Bugajski
Mr. Whitehurst……Darrel Larson
Mrs. Whitehurst…Deborah Hedwall