Movie Review: Taulbert’s life lives through Reid’s movie

by Monica Schwarze
Features Editor

Clifton Taulbert’s childhood was marked by two things; the love of his extended family, and the burden of racial prejudice and the enforced segregation that he and his loved ones were forced to bear in Glen Allan, Miss., in the 1950s.

Both elements of Clifton’s childhood are portrayed with sensitivity, quiet restraint and precisely the right mix of humor and drama in Tim Reid’s adaptation of Taulbert’s 1989 autobiography, “Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored.”

The movie is presented as a series of vignettes, connected only by the carefully developed characters, each who had a hand in shaping Clifton’s life, sometimes at the expense of their own dreams.

The dominating figure in the Taulbert family is Poppa, Clifton’s great-grandfather (Al Freeman Jr.), a man brave enough to stand up to a verbally abusive Klu Klux Klansman, yet sensitive enough to take on the responsibility of raising Clifton.

Another central figure in Clifton’s life is Ma Ponk (Phylicia Rashad), his God-fearing great-aunt who refuses to leave her family for the more advanced equality that she would find by joining her son Melvin (Leon) in Detroit.

The approaching Civil Rights Movement is seen only as a footnote to the plot, but it is a powerful one.

Screenwriter Paul W. Cooper has chosen to adapt Taulbert’s novel in such a way that the frequent instances of bigotry that Clifton and his family face are seen as part of the larger picture of everyday life, rather than as heavy political rhetoric. This treatment makes these instances of hatred and prejudice all the more alarming. Even when Clifton is refused use of a white-only public restroom, receiving his first lesson in what it truly means to be African American in the rural South, the incident is given only cursory treatment, driving home the fact that, for the Taulbert family, situations such as these occurred every day.

The only time that politics steps to the forefront in the film is in a later vignette involving the congenial local iceman, Cleve (Richard Roundtree), who finds his business threatened by a white competitor who uses race and intimidation to drive him out of business.

Although frequent voice-overs by the adult Clifton (who is never seen on film), and several slow motion scenes often tediously try to draw out emotions that the superb acting and subtle plot would evoke anyway, the overall excellence of the film and its performances far outweigh this drawback.

Each performer in the ensemble works in harmony, but the three young actors who play Clifton at ages 5, 10 and 16, deserve special credit for portraying the movie’s central character with a high consistency and warmth.

Iona Morris adds an exotic element to the otherwise plain Glen Allan as the tent dancer Nila, who comes to town to perform, and to give Ma Ponk a glimpse of what she missed years ago, by refusing to join a traveling gospel band.

Polly Bergen acts as an example of both sincere kindness and well-intentioned ignorance as the middle-aged matron who agrees to check books out of the all-white library for Clifton, even as she criticizes his cousins for complaining about the harsh conditions they must undergo while picking cotton.

Choreographers Andrea Smith and Gregory Hubbard also deserve special mention for directing a knife fight sequence that relies more on subtlety and theatrics than actual violence, yet still conveys the frustration and anger experienced in the scene.

The movie comes to no complete conclusion, which leaves the viewer wondering what becomes of Clifton and the Taulbert family. But perhaps this is fitting, since many of the struggles that the Taulberts encountered in the 1950s remain unresolved today.

“Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored” is rated PG for strong language and sexual situations. It is currently playing in limited release.

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