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. 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 U.S. films. Well-made production , which will be released by Republic on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend on a handful of screens, has some crossover appeal as family fare and should be seen in major urban centers before landing on TV, cable and in classrooms. There are no drugs and not much violence in this evocative work in which black characters actually get to live long lives and die in bed of natural causes. Film as a whole stands as 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, Miss., pic presents a warm tribute to the black heritage that prevailed in the Deep South of the postwar years. Sprawling narrative sheds light on what it meant to grow up in this particular time and place.
Three-part story begins in 1946 with a baby’s birth in the cotton fields, then jumps to 1951 for the first and 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. Poppa teaches Cliff his first words (“Whites Only” and “Colored”) and exposes him to a Ku Klux Klan parade, where the boy 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, a minstrel show, trips to the neighboring “big city” and, above all, life in a tightly knit community.
Film doesn’t contain many white characters, but the few present are agreeably non-stereotypical. In the second, 1958 chapter, Cliff (Willie Norwood Jr.) helps out Mrs. Maybry (wonderfully played by Polly Bergen), a liberal woman who introduces him to literature and checks out books from a library that bars blacks. Most of Cliff’s interactions, however, are with his great aunt (Phylicia Rashad) and her son Melvin (Leon), who visit from Michigan after a long absence.
Concluding segment is the most overtly political, revolving around Cleve (Richard Roundtree), a decent ice man who sparks a flame of racial protest in the community when his livelihood is threatened by discrimination.
Yarn is rich in incident and character, but the 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.
Neophyte helmer Reid is sensitive to his outstanding performers, but he gives the story too monotonous a pace. “Once Upon a Time” lacks the magical and touching quality of the film “Sounder,” which it resembles thematically. But its evocative texture and multinuanced context, magnificently recorded by John Simmons’ alert camera, honorably compensate for its weaknesses.