By Aaron Cutler
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Chris Klimek
By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
The African maxim that it takes a village to raise a child is the theme of Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored. Clifton L. Taulbert's slim book about his boyhood in the black section of a small Mississippi town in the 1950s is childhood memoir at its best: simple, briskly told, deeply affectionate but not maudlin, and subtly infused with a sense of mission. With unaffected, eloquent prose, Taulbert creates a small, touching monument to the black--and one white--countryfolk who helped raise him, and raise him up.
TV actor Tim Reid, known as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati and recently for roles on Frank's Place and Sister/Sister, now makes his feature directorial debut with a movie version of Taulbert's book adapted by screenwriter Paul W. Cooper. With the help of cinematographer John Simmons, Reid has given the meandering, episodic narrative a lovely, gentle glow, and peopled it with fine actors (many of whom, no doubt, worked for much less than they are accustomed).
The film begins with Clifton's 1946 birth in a cotton field. He is delivered by an aunt known as Ma Ponk--Phylicia Rashad, who always seemed a bit of a purring phony to me on The Cosby Show, is wonderful in this role. Cliff first lives with his great-grandfather (Al Freeman Jr.), who one day teaches him the letters "W" and "C" so that he won't use the wrong bathroom or drinking fountain. The same day, the boy witnesses members of the Ku Klux Klan burning Hodding Carter in effigy. Later, while living with Ma Ponk, Cliff learns how to pick cotton, but is encouraged by his neighbors to pursue his schooling, and by a prickly but decent local white woman (Polly Bergen) to pursue reading the classics.
Cliff, his great-grandfather and the old man's friends gather around the radio to hear Joe Louis fight Rocky Marciano, and are crushed when Louis falls. Proper Ma Ponk rents out a room to a black tent-show dancer (Iona Morris), and the two women make a wistful connection. Ma Ponk's son (Leon) comes to visit from the fabled North, and renews an old love at a local juke joint. The attempt by a white-owned ice company to put the town's one black ice man (an unusually jovial, animated Richard Roundtree) out of business gives the town of Glen Allan a cause behind which to unite.
These and other plot strands bend and weave and overlap with an easy, summer-afternoon rhythm, but they add up. This material is familiar from other coming-of-age stories, but Reid, like Taulbert, assembles it into a social theme.
The pre-MLK rural black communities had a quiet strength that can too easily be forgotten. Most of the older inhabitants of Taulbert's Glen Allan, Mississippi, are seemingly apolitical and minimally educated. The point of the story is that out of community strengths in places like Glen Allan grew the movement that would, in the '50s and '60s, make the largest gains for American blacks since Reconstruction. These black communities weren't without defiance and anger, but they harnessed them to a slow, shrewd, patient campaign to raise a new generation that could take for granted the freedoms their parents had not known.
Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored:
Directed by Tim Reid; with Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad, Leon, Paula Kelly, Salli Richardson, Anna Maria Horsford, Bernie Casey, Isaac Hayes, Taj Mahal, Polly Bergen, Iona Morris and Richard Roundtree.
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