Once Upon a Time ...
I would be remiss if I let Black History month pass without recognizing the contributions of African Americans to film history. While Hollywood did not portray African Americans in a positive light during the early half of the century, and did not offer many opportunities in front of or behind the camera, talented African Americans like Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Sidney Pottier, Debbie Allen and many others make important contributions to our society.
Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored is one hidden gem you will find sitting on the back shelves of your local video store. Directed by Tim Reid, best known as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati, the film is a touching tale chronicling the life of one young African American boy as he grows up in the Deep South. Along the way, he struggles with poverty and racism and learns how his family views these same difficulties.
In 1946, young Clifton's life begins in the cotton fields of Glen Allen, Mississippi, when his mother, Mary (Karen Malina White) gives birth to him while struggling to pick her day's quota of cotton. It's a poignant moment and reflective of the life southern African Americans must lead. Many are sharecroppers trying to make a decent day's wage, believing that hard work is the key to a better future, but they still suffer the indignities of the farm's owner, who refuses to pay Mary for a full day's work because she stopped part way through to give birth.
Soon, we learn that Clifton is an illegitimate child because his father wants to move to the north, where he feels an African American has a better chance of making it. Unfortunately, Clifton bounces from home to home, living with different family members. His mother leaves him in the care of her parents, Poppa (Al Freeman, Jr.) and Ma Pearl (Paula Kelly), who deeply love the child, but they are growing old and he must move on to another family. Even though he is moved around, Clifton always ends up in a loving home with people trying to inspire him to succeed.
How will Clifton turn out?
Al Freeman, Jr. is wonderful as Poppa, an African American man trying to do his best to raise his family and inspire his grandson to greatness. In one of the movie's best scenes, Freeman shows the pain his character feels as he struggles to teach his grandson about life outside of his African American neighborhood. He has to show his grandson which water fountains and restrooms he can use and must confront a racist rally when they go out for a day on the town.
Phylicia Rashad emerges from her television role as Clarie Huxtable to portray Ma Ponk, a talented singer who didn't leave town when she had the chance. During the film, a traveling carnival comes to town. She hosts one of the African American entertainers and reflects on her childhood when she was just 15, but was too young to leave town with the carnival that wanted her to perform for them. She learns about the kind of life she could have lived in the north, a recurring theme in the film, and thinks about what could have been.
Tim Reid shows wonderful skill as a director. My favorite scene is the big boxing match between Joe Louis, who is African American, and Rocky Marciano, who is white. He sets it up by explaining how the African American community reveres several figures who have been able to succeed including Jackie Robinson, Frederick Douglas and the current heavyweight champ, Joe Louis. He takes us into Poppa's living room as friends from the community gather around the radio to listen to the fight and we get the sense that this is more than a boxing match. The end result is moving.
Do yourself a favor and check out Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored this weekend. It doesn't develop a compelling plot until late in the film, but paints a portrait of life in the deep south before the civil rights movement. The studio was upset with Reid because he refused to sensationalize the story by adding confrontations with the Klan and other racist situations. He understood that the film is the story of family, not a story about racism, even though it must be confronted due to the time and the characters involved. Reid made the right choice.
Directed by Tim Reid
Written by Paul W. Cooper
Based on the autobiographical novel by Clifton Talbert
Phylicia Rashad . Ma Ponk
Al Freeman, Jr. ... Poppa
Karen Malina White .. Mary
Paula Kelly . Pearl
Daphne Maxwell Reid Miss Maxie
Bernie Casey Walter
Isaac Hayes ..Preacher Hearn
Phil Lewis Sammy
Taj Mahal .Mr. Will
Polly Bergen Miss Maybry
Richard Roundtree .. Cleve
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