Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored

on January 26, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   Based on Clifton Taulbert's autobiographical book about growing up black in mid-century Mississippi, this film follows a parentless young boy named Cliff (played by Willie Norwood Jr. and later Damon Hines) as he's raised in a community of cotton plantation workers beset by poor wages, white bigotry and a single avenue of escape: north. But Cliff has heroes around him--wise great-granddad Poppa (Al Freeman Jr.), caring great-aunt Ma Ponk (Phylicia Rashad) and no-nonsense iceman Cleve (Richard Roundtree)--and their strengths become his.
   Told in golden tones, like the current "Cry, the Beloved Country" "Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored" profits and suffers from having virtually every character be noble in his or her struggle; here, inhumanity carries only a white face. This historical take on intra- and and interracial relations deepens the film's emotional resonance for its intended audience even as it shuts out the good-willed among other moviegoers; like its heroes, this directing debut of Tim Reid--whose excellent ability with actors reflects his long experience on the other side of the camera--seeks to be a beacon of inspiration for those who need it most, and it succeeds admirably on those terms. But it also loses a liveliness that comes with the rough-and-tumbles even the happiest extended family goes through; only an ultimately tragic sequence in which Ma Ponk befriends a girly-show dancer (Anna Maria Horsford) cuts like real life. (Note: At press time, distributor I.R.S.--which with partner Republic Pictures had planned a well-timed rollout for the Martin Luther King weekend--had just entered bankruptcy; Republic was not yet able to state how distribution would proceed.)    Starring Al Freeman Jr., Phylicia Rashad and Richard Roundtree. Directed by Tim Reid. Written by Paul W. Cooper. Produced by Tim Reid and Michael Bennett. A BET presentation of a United Image Entertainment production; distributor to be set. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements including mild violence, language, and sensuality. Running time: 115 min.
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