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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 ownlocal 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 timethe 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 Marcianobut 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.
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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.
These days, Quentin Tarantino is apparently too busy being a phenomenon to write or direct, although he’s always available to play some swaggering lowlife in his friends’ films. Fortunately, the auteur of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction has some moldy scripts for those friends to direct, thus both expanding his screenwriting credits and providing him with more swaggering-lowlife parts. Just such a script is From Dusk Till Dawn, written in 1990 from a story by special-effects-makeup executive Robert Kurtzman (whose firm ended up doing those effects). A bloody, tedious frolic through various direct-to-video genres, it was directed by Tarantino pal Robert Rodriguez (whose work includes El Mariachi, Desperado, and the segment that precedes Tarantino’s in the dingy Four Rooms) and features its scripter as bank robber and sex murderer Richie Gecko.
Richie and his older, somewhat more lucid older brother, Seth (George Clooney), have robbed a bank, killed a bunch of people, and are heading for the Mexican border. We meet them at a liquor store, where a robbery turns ultraviolent in a manner that recalls Natural Born Killers. (This scene is one of many elements that closely resemble ones from other Tarantino scripts.) Then it’s on to a seedy motel, where Seth decides that the best conveyance across the border would be an RV driven by Jacob Fuller (Pulp and Dogs star Harvey Keitel), a mild-mannered minister who’s lost his calling since the death of his wife. So the brothers kidnap Jacob and his kids, Scott and Kate (Ernest Liu and Killers star Juliette Lewis), and head for a rendezvous with the Mexican fixer who’s going to provide them safe haven.
The Geckos are supposed to meet their contact at the Titty Twister, a bacchanalian juke-joint that appears to be one-tenth roadhouse, nine-tenths snake-cult temple. The bar’s proprietors and staff (including an exotic dancer played by Salma Hayek and a barker played by Cheech Marin, both seen in Desperado) turn out to be vampires, so the Geckos, the Fullers, and various other not-yet-undead patrons (including former blaxploitation star Fred Williamson and Night of the Living Dead director Tom Savini) must unite to battle the bloodsuckers. After reducing the villains to various forms of special-effects goo, the premise certainly seems to have run its course. In fact, though, there’s another vampire assault in the offing.
Watching the antics of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and their palseven Kelly Preston, wife of Pulp star John Travolta, has a cameoI recalled rock’s supergroup and supersession era, when newly rich and successful musicians indulged themselves making half-baked albums that entirely lost the qualities that had made them stars. Dawn must have been such a party for the filmmakers that they lost all thought of the audience; potentially interesting notions and some decent gags are overwhelmed by monomaniacal relentlessness and narcissistic in-jokes. (I assume Tarantino thinks his tiresome turn as a smirky, homicidal foot fetishist is funny.) Rodriguez, who cuts his own films, is a wizard in the editing room, but if Desperado didn’t already make the point, Dusk makes it utterly clear that there’s more to filmmaking than quick cuts.
Informed that its December AFI screenings would be Washingtonians’ last chance to see writer/director Steven M. Martin’s Theremin, I reviewed the film two months ago. Now the Biograph is giving local filmgoers another opportunity, and those interested in any aspect of this kaleidoscopic documentarywhich ranges from Lenin to Brian Wilson, bug-eyed-monster flicks to trippy pop-rock, American racism to Soviet totalitarianismshould take it. This terse thriller recounts the life and work (and wide-ranging ramifications thereof) of Leon Theremin, who invented the pioneering synthesizer heard on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the soundtracks of such ’50s Cold War parables as The Day the Earth Stood Still. Martin has structured his film like a mystery, judiciously unveiling each detail of Theremin’s life for maximum surprise, and what he’s managed to reconstruct is wilder in its way than most Hollywood thrillers. CP