Beautifully photographed and superbly acted, “America’s Dream” traces an arc — in 10-year increments — of pre-’60s black life, beginning with a farmer in 1938 Alabama who must bury his pride and dignity in his dealings with whites, to a Chicago jazz club in 1958, where the nitery’s pianist powerfully regains her dignity by confronting a former white tormentor. And although these vignettes center on blacks, the poignant dreams and themes transcend color lines.
First of three 30-minute films, “Long Black Song,” features Silas (Danny Glover) and Sarah (Tina Lifford) as struggling Alabama farmers. “Song” opens on Silas joyously playing with his infant daughter, establishing his role in the family. But in town, Silas subdues his strong individuality in order to do business with the white Mr. Harper (Daniel Tucker Kamin), who calls Silas “Boy.”
Meanwhile, a young, handsome, white traveling salesman stops at the homestead; while Sarah is at first suspicious, the open-minded David (Tate Donovan) falls for the lonely young wife. He wins her over, and they share a night of passion kindled by David’s gramophone and its music. David wants to run off with Sarah, but she knows where her home is. He leaves.
When Silas returns, he figures out what happened, crying, “We give ’em enough , why’s you have to give ’em everything?” It is a wrenching, defining moment.
The second seg, set in 1948 Georgia, introduces more prosperous, educated people: George Du Vaul (Wesley Snipes) is the principal of a “colored-only” school. He and wife Elna (Jasmine Guy) are ambitious — socially and intellectually. George has a shot at a state job supervising all the “colored-only” schools in Georgia. To secure the new post, George must pull off the annual “Pride Day” art competition without a hitch.
Meantime, little Aaron (Norman D. Golden II) has painted a portrait of Christ as a black man for his teacher, Miss Williams (Vanessa Bell Calloway), as a birthday gift. Miss Williams, who’s grounded in self-respect, submits the portrait for Pride Day, but the white school superintendent becomes apoplectic over the painting, and warns George to get rid of it.
George must wrestle with who he is: a successful black man on his own terms or an ugly “Uncle Tom” stereotype, which the whites in charge prefer.
Young Aaron provides the light for the conflicted George to find his way, and this segment is the most uplifting and traditionally narrative of the three.
Philomena (Lorraine Toussaint) is the focus of “The Reunion,” the most poetic of the three short films. Seg is mostly a meditation on a black women’s meeting. Beth Ann (Susanna Thompson), the daughter of the white family that employed Philomena’s family as servants, triggers heartbreaking childhood memories for Philomena, a jazz pianist: Beth Ann and her mother denied the little Philomena the gift of music by forbidding her to play — or touch — their family piano.
Although she fantasizes about publicly humiliating Beth Ann, when Philomena finally does act, in the form of a stirring monologue, it is with dignity and grace; after her speech, she returns to the bandstand, free to indulge in her jazz, a metaphor for black pride and strength.
What the characters strive for is no different than what any American wants: to be rewarded for hard work and not suffer indignities at the hands of others.
The films’ use of detail — sometimes subtle, sometimes not — adds haunting subtext to the stories: the dichotomy of the light-skinned Guy and darker Calloway representing two paths for the conflicted character played by Snipes; the films’scores, which incorporate jazz, a musical form that blacks invented; and the tones in which the races speak with each other.
All three segs feature excellent perfs, but standouts include Williams, who speaks with her eyes; Golden, as the stoic young artist; and Toussaint, who must manage a broad range of emotions, finally conveying exhilarating depth and self-respect.
Ron Stacker Thompson and Ashley Tyler have adapted the stories well, preserving each author’s voice; one can hear Maya Angelou’s speaking through “The Reunion’s” narrative.
Tech credits are feature-film sharp.