Film Review By Frederic Brussat
Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored Directed by Tim Reid Artisan Entertainment 01/96 DVD/VHS Feature Film PG - thematic elements The content of our characters is shaped by people who early in our lives teach us through their words and deeds what it means to be human. Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored is a touching and revealing portrait of a young black boy's upbringing in Glen Allan, Mississippi, from 1946 to 1962. The wisdom and the sacrifices of those who love, nourish and sustain him are at the core of this heart-warming drama directed by Tim Reid. It is based on the book by Clifton Taulbert. Born in the cotton fields to a young girl without a husband, Clifton is raised by Poppa (Al Freeman, Jr.), his great-grandfather who gives him a keen sense of right and wrong. His great aunt (Phylicia Rashad) expands his horizons, and an iceman (Richard Roundtree) conveys to the boy how important it is to stand up for what he believes in. Mrs. Maybry (Polly Bergen), a white woman, introduces him to the wide world of literature. This vibrant film celebrates community as a seedbed and workshop where young souls are forged. Don't miss it!
reviewed by Steve Rhodes ONCE UPON A TIME ... WHEN WE WERE COLORED A film review by Steve Rhodes Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes RATING (0 TO ****): ***
ONCE UPON A TIME ... WHEN WE WERE COLORED is based on the best selling memoirs of Clifton Taulbert. It tells of a time and a people in the south that is rarely dealt with on film. It starts in Colored Town which is the name of the black community on the wrong side of the railroad tracks in Glen Allan, Mississippi. The film starts in the year is 1946 when segregation is in full force. Wait a minute, you are probably saying. I have seen a lot of movies about racial discrimination in the south. As you start to tick off the movies (MISSISSIPPI BURNING, etc.), ask yourself how many of these focus on the black community itself. If you examine most of the films, you will see that they are more about whites and what bad things the whites do to the blacks. You see a lot of blacks as victims, but rarely do you see the blacks coming together for community, for support, and for fun as you do in ONCE UPON A TIME ... WHEN WE WERE COLORED. Here the whites appear periodically and serve to remind the audience of why the blacks suffered. Even the whites are more realistically drawn than normal. You see how uncomfortable some of them are with the system they feel trapped in, but go along with anyway. Other whites rebel and try to help. All of this notwithstanding, the whites play a minor role in the picture, which I found totally refreshing and much more involving. Other than "Roots," which was set in a different era, I do not remember a film that taught so much of what it is to be part of the black community. Massive discrimination is shown certainly, but the great script adaptation (Paul W. Cooper) keeps the focus on the blacks themselves. Like the marvelous film TO LIVE from a couple of years ago, the show is told in small segments. It starts when Cliff is born and then skips to age 5 (Charles Earl Taylor Jr.), 12 (Willis Norwood Jr.), and finally 16 (Damon Hines). This means the films spans the turbulent era of 1946-1962. Since I was born in 1946 and grew up in the south, the discrimination presented here from the separate water fountains to the rest rooms labeled "whites" and "colored," I can remember all too well. Repugnant as it was, it did happen; I remember. I was there. In one of the most poignant, but simple scenes from the show, Cliff's grandfather "Pappa" (Al Freeman Jr.) asks 5 year old Cliff several times before they leave to make the big trip to an adjoining town if he needs to go to the bathroom again, and Cliff says no. When Pappa stops for gas, the child announces he has to go, but Pappa shakes his head pointing out that the service station is small so it just has a white's restroom. The child, in pain, must wait until he can go in the woods later.
Much of the show is devoted to the milieu of the blacks' lives: their fishing along the river, their one room school house for all eight grades, their large picnics, and their worship of God ("If you call Jesus, his line is never busy"). You relive their smaller tragedies too as when Joe Louis, "The Brown Bomber", loses the heavy weight championship after holding the crown for 12 years. The blacks are shown as a hopeful lot, and as the narrator (Paul W. Cooper) says, "Everyone clung to the idea that if you worked hard, you get a piece of the American dream." They are also defiant against injustice, as when one of the women cotton pickers says of the field boss, "He ain't nothing but a redneck trying to be a white man." The only white person that comes off well in the film is Miss Maybry (Polly Bergen) who gets Cliff books, but warns him, "Books are like eggs. You got to crack 'em open to get anything out of them." Eventually the seeds of revolution are set. Even Pappa moves from passive aggression to active defiance. As he sums up his anger, "we got peace with the white man as long as we do what he says." The acting is good all round, but the star of the show has to be Al Freeman Jr. He shows great inner strength, bravery, and intelligence. You may remember him from his forceful performance as Elijah Muhammad in MALCOLM X. I liked the other actors and actresses, but none stood out for me the way his performance did. The cinematography by John Simmons has the perfect nostalgic sepia look to it. The direction by Tim Reid has good pacing except in the middle where the show loses energy. Some of the incidents chosen for illustration work much better than others so, although I really liked the film, I found it uneven. ONCE UPON A TIME ... WHEN WE WERE COLORED runs 1:55. It is correctly rated PG. There is no sex, no nudity, mild violence and only a few bad words. It would be fine for any kid old enough to be interested in the subject. I liked the show a lot, although I wish it were more even and had a stronger middle. I recommend this excellent show to you and award it ***.
Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored A Film Review by James Berardinelli
United States, 1996 U.S. Release Date: beginning 1/12/96 (limited) Running Length: 1:55 MPAA Classification: PG (Violence, mature themes) Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Cast: Charles Earl Taylor Jr., Willis Norwood Jr., Damon Hines, Al Freeman Jr., Richard Roundtree, Phylicia Rashad, Paula Kelly, Leon, Isaac Hayes, Bernie Casey, Polly Bergen Director: Tim Reid Producers: Michael Bennett and Tim Reid Screenplay: Paul W. Cooper based on the novel by Clifton Taulbert Cinematography: John Simmons Music: Steve Tyrell U.S. Distributor: Republic Pictures
In a time when intelligent family pictures are at a premium, intelligent African American family pictures are virtually nonexistent. Into that void has come Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored, Tim Reid's feature adaptation of Clifton Taulbert's memoirs. Blending sepia- toned nostalgia with harder-hitting, passionate themes, Reid has crafted a portrait of growing up in the middle-of-the-century South the likes of which is rarely found in any medium. In Once Upon a Time, a sense of quiet dignity has replaced the rage that often typifies films targeted for black audiences. Yet this movie is no less emotive or potent because of it. Issues of equality, fairness, and self-respect form the cornerstones of the defining subtext for this coming-of-age story. Although Once Upon a Time is rooted in a setting that will have greater resonance for black Americans, much of what this film says has universal scope and intent. Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored opens in 1946 in Colored Town, the black companion community to Glen Allen, Mississippi -- the year and place of Clifton Taulbert's birth. The film traces his first sixteen years, ending in 1962 when Cliff decides to leave his home, family, and work in the cotton fields for the promise of the North. Although Once Upon a Time is occasionally disjointed, and some of the transitions are abrupt, it nevertheless offers a compelling chronicle of one man's growth into adulthood during volatile times, when courageous men and women began challenging an unjust system. As with most episodic movies, certain segments leave a more lasting impression than others. One of the most memorable occurs early in the film, when Cliff's greatgrandfather (Al Freeman Jr.) gives the young boy a lesson about the differences between "White" and "Colored" facilities. This is immediately followed by a KKK march, one of the film's few grim, tense scenes. On another occasion, friends and family gather around Cliff's great-grandfather's radio, listening to the play- by-play of a Joe Lewis fight
("Colored folks had so few heroes..."). There's a wonderfully festive Sunday picnic characterized by food, games, and good times. Then, towards the end, we are privy to a church meeting where the men and women of Colored Town debate whether the community should send someone to an NAACP meeting up North. The film is highlighted by a pair of strong performances. Al Freeman Jr. (as Poppa, Cliff's great- grandfather) and Richard Roundtree (as Cleve, a local ice salesman who becomes embroiled in an "ice war" with a white-owned company) take supporting roles and turn them into memorable portrayals. The three young actors who play Cliff -Charles Earl Taylor Jr. (age 5), Willis Norwood Jr. (age 12), and Damon Hines (age 16) -- are solid, if not spectacular. The rest of the cast varies from effective (Polly Bergen, Paula Kelly) to adequate (Leon, Phylicia Rashad). Technically, Once Upon a Time rarely shows its monetary constraints, although, considering Tim Reid's struggle to put together the film's budget, it's amazing how good it looks. Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored is about growing up and breaking free, both as an individual and as a community. It's about standing up for denied rights and not backing down in the face of pressure. Moreover, it's an intimate odyssey through the kind of childhood that is forever lost in the not-so-distant-past, when, despite the plague of legal racism throughout the South, the closeness of a community still offered support, comfort, and love. In Cliff's words, "All that I am or ever will be comes from growing up with my extended family in...Colored Town." That simple statement embodies the core of the film's message to viewers of all races and generations. ÂŠ 1996 James Berardinelli
Once Upon A Time . . . When We Were Colored BY ROGER EBERT / January 26, 1996 Tim Reid's "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" re-creates the world of a black community in the rural South in the years from 1946 to 1962, as hardline segregation gradually fell to the assault of the civil rights movement. It is a memory of the close bonds of family, friends and church that grew up to sustain such communities, in a society where an American version of apartheid was the law. The key word there is "community," and rarely has a film more movingly shown how people who work, live and pray together can find a common strength and self-respect. There are 83 speaking parts in this ambitious film, which spans four generations and Cast & Credits remembers not only the joy of Saturday night dances and Sunday church socials, but also the Poppa: Al Freeman Jr. cruel pain of a little boy learning to spell his first Ma Ponk: Phylicia Rashad words: "white" and "colored." By the end of the Melvin Leon Cleve: film, we feel we know the people in the "colored Richard Roundtree town" of Glen Allan, Miss., and we understand Miss Maybry: Polly Bergen why such communities produced so many good Ma Pearl: Paula Kelly and capable citizens. Produced And Directed By The movie is based on a 1989 book by Clifton L. Tim Reid. Screenplay By Taulbert, who published it with a small Kansas City firm and then saw it reach the best-seller lists Paul W. Cooper, Based On The Book By Clifton L. after a strong review in the New York Times; it was the first book requested by Nelson Mandela Taulbert. Running Time: after he was released from prison. One of its 111 Minutes. Rated PG early readers was the television actor Tim Reid (For Thematic Elements ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place"), who Including Mild Violence, determined to film it even though it seemed Language And Sensuality). "commercial" in no conventional sense. He Printer-friendly Âť assembled the enormous cast, shot on location in E-mail this to a friend Âť North Carolina, and has made a film that is both an impressive physical production (the period looks and feels absolutely authentic) and a deeply moving emotional experience. In many ways this film compares to "The Color Purple," although it has a simpler, more direct, less melodramatic quality; it is not about a few lives, but about life itself as it was experienced in the segregated South.
There are so many characters that to attempt a plot summary would be pointless. Better to remember some of the extraordinary scenes. Much of the story is told through the eyes of a young boy named Cliff (played at different ages by three actors), who is raised by his great-grandparents (Al Freeman Jr. and Paula Kelly). As he watches and learns, so do we, especially in a scene where
"Poppa," his great-grandfather, takes him to town for a treat. It is on this trip that he makes the mistake of going into the "white" washroom in a gas station, and Poppa carefully traces the letters "C" and "W" and tells him what words they stand for, and why. Few scenes in my memory have had a greater impact than the one where the boy, happily supplied with an ice cream cone, joins his great-grandfather in watching silently as a Klan parade marches ominously down Main Street. Al Freeman's character never says a word, but his jaw tightens and his eyes compress with pain, and we feel as we seldom have before in the movies how personally hurtful racism is. But there are happier moments. Many of them involve Cliff's adventures in the neighborhood, especially on a day when a carnival comes to down, and one of the dancing girls is boarded with a local woman named Ma Ponk (Phylicia Rashad). The dancer, played by Iona Morris, is basically no more than a sideshow stripper, but to young eyes she seems impossibly glamorous. There is a scene that begins conventionally, as the dancer promises to "make over" Ma Ponk by doing her hair and makeup, and putting her in a fancy dress. But the payoff is extraordinary, as the local woman combs out the dancer's hair in front of a mirror, and the touch of her hands reminds the dancer of her own mother, whom she has not seen in 15 years. A wordless communication of understanding and sympathy passes between the women. It is one of those magical scenes you cannot account for, something happens that transcends story and acting, and reaches straight into the heart. Segregation was wrong and hurtful, but the system did provide a benefit: The black community was self-sufficient, supporting its own tradespeople, school teachers, ministers and craftsmen, who provided role models for young people growing up. The movie remembers one room school houses, and churches where gospel music and fiery sermons uplifted a congregation after its week of work in the fields. It remembers juke joints and church picnics (with the cards hidden under a hat when the preacher approaches) and the way that old people were respected and consulted. There are also scenes to show that many of the local white people were goodhearted and well meaning; a woman named Miss Maybry (Polly Bergen) gives young Cliff books to read, and encourages him to stretch his mind and develop his ambition. (There is a very funny scene where Cliff says things that Miss Maybry perhaps should not be told, and Miss Maybry's maid tries to signal him from behind her employer's back.) When the civil rights movement first penetrates into this corner of Mississippi, not everyone in the black community is happy to see it come. Many people have a working arrangement with the old system, and are afraid of stirring up trouble, especially since they know that "agitators" can be beaten or killed. There is a meeting in the church that
dramatizes that tension. The changing times come to a head through the person of Cleve (Richard Roundtree), the local iceman, who has hired Cliff to help him on his rounds. A white ice company decides to take over the "colored route," and so the local ice wholesaler refuses to sell to Cleve. He goes to another dealer, miles away. Then the white field foreman announces that anyone not buying ice from the white company will lose his job. And that is when something cracks, and feeling that has been repressed for long years finally breaks through. It is almost impossible to express the cumulative power of "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored." It isn't a slick, tightly packaged docudrama, but a film from the heart, a film that is not a protest against the years of segregation so much as a celebration of the human qualities that endured and overcame. Although the movie is about African Americans, its message is about the universal human spirit. I am aware of three screenings it has had at film festivals: before a largely black audience in Chicago, a largely white audience in Virginia, and a largely Asian audience in Honolulu. All three audiences gave it a standing ovation. There you have it.