Once Upon a Time…

Nostalgia is a risky thing, and nostalgia for the lot of African-Americans in the segregated American South seems particularly perilous. The well-meaning Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored, however, never entirely loses its perspective. The film, the feature-directing debut of TV actor/director Tim Reid, is too vague and mild-mannered for its own good, but it’s not an apologia for the bad old days.

Adapted from Clifton Taulbert’s autobiographical chronicle of a small Mississippi community from 1946 to 1962, the film views the changing conditions and aspirations of black Southerners through the childhood of Cliff (played successively by Charles Earl “Spud” Taylor Jr., Willie Norwood Jr., and Damon Hines). The boy is raised principally by his great-grandfather, Poppa (Al Freeman Jr.), and great-aunt Ma Ponk (Phylicia Rashad), but all of Glen Allan, Miss., is his extended family. (Will Hillary Clinton be able to resist turning up at the Key with a copy of It Takes a Village?) Many residents of “Colored Town” decline to get involved in the voting-rights struggle, but when economic pressure is applied to one of their own—local iceman Cleve (former blaxploitation star Richard Roundtree)—everyone rallies to him.

It’s typical of Colored that this incident ends with the rallying, rather than pursuing the conflict to its conclusion. Though Paul W. Cooper’s script acknowledges the dangers of being black in post-WWII Mississippi, it seldom follows through. When Poppa stares down a Ku Klux Klan marcher, for example, one of the hooded thugs says they’ll deal with him later, but they never do. Such pulled punches are characteristic of the film, which seems designed with the sensibilities of junior-high social-studies teachers in mind.

Such timidity doesn’t prevent Colored from making some of its points in miniature. When Poppa carefully teaches 5-year-old Cliff the difference between “W” and “C” so he won’t mistakenly use the wrong water fountain, the moment is as chilling as any possible violent confrontation. (How, though, does the circumspect 5-year-old Cliff become the reckless 12-year-old who candidly repeats his elders’ controversial remarks to the white woman whose yard he rakes?)

Despite some powerful moments, Colored ultimately seems less than real. Some specific details evoke the place and time—the Klan’s fury at liberal local newspaperman Hodding Carter, the shock to the black men huddled around the radio when Joe Louis falls to Rocky Marciano—but there aren’t enough of them. Another problem is Reid’s formulaic direction: When he alternates between the face of the admiring Melvin (Leon) and the woman’s legs he’s watching descend the stairs, regular moviegoers will be several cuts ahead of him in their minds. But then this is the sort of film that blithely upholds such stereotypes as the crazy (white) woman driver, and reflexively punishes Ma Ponk with family catastrophe for daring to catch the act of the “Nubian dancing girl” who lodges with her while a traveling carnival is in town.

Produced by BET Pictures, an affiliate of D.C.-based Black Entertainment Television, Colored is clearly intended as an alternative to “gangsta” cinema; the film’s casting, which combines ’70s icons like Roundtree and Isaac Hayes with TV veterans like Freeman, Rashad, and Phill Lewis, indicates that it’s designed for an older audience. The popularity of Taulbert’s book suggests that this audience is already interested, but in the creation of a grown-up African-American cinema, Tim Reid is no rival to Charles Burnett or Carl Franklin.CP