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, and at the same time captures a sweeping, panoramic view of black culture.
Three-parter opens 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 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 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’sinteractions however, are with his great aunt (Phylicia Rashad) and her son Melvin (Leon).
Concluding segment is most overtly political, about Cleve (Richard Roundtree) , a decent ice man who sparks a flame of racial protest in the community when his livelihood is threatened by discrimination. Saga ends in 1962, with Cliff’s fateful but inevitable departure for the North.
Yarn is rich in incident and character, but overly episodic structure presents a problem: Protagonist Cliff often is lost in the maze, and the narrative fails to register 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, as pic moves at a far graver tempo than the norm. Tale’s static quality is emphasized by a running time that is excessive by at least 15 minutes. “Once Upon a Time” lacks the magical and touching quality of a film like “Sounder,” which it resembles thematically. But its evocative texture and multinuanced context, magnificently recorded by John Simmons’ alert camera, honorably compensate for its weaknesses.