It can't have been much fun being colored.
That's the inescapable fact that emerges from "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored." The movie, directed by Tim Reid, is an almost anthropologically pure reconstruction of African-American life and culture in the Deep South in the '50s, the last decade of cotton's rule and the last decade of the Man's rule. It's a bittersweet portrait of a lost world, and it arrives with some anger but also with a spirit of regret.
Talk about mixed signals. Yes, we see a culture casually oppressed, and we see a society that takes the hegemony of white over black so much for granted it's almost like the presence of the wind. But at the same time, the movie seems to communicate a yearning for simpler, stabler times, when the twin rocks of church and family were there to be built upon, when folks cared for and took care of each other.
Constructed as (and drawn from) a novelized memoir, "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" doesn't proceed narratively but incrementally, in the slow accumulation of character and detail over the passage of time. It covers much of the ground covered in Nicholas Lehman's magnificent book "The Promised Land" of a few years back, chronicling the beginning of the great migration of share-cropping blacks, who could no longer be sustained by an aggressively industrializing agricultural economy, toward a North where jobs were supposed to be abundant, but somehow never were.
But none of that is known to Clifton, whom we see born in a cotton field in 1946 and whose journey through boyhood we trace until he at last heads north in 1962, well on his way to becoming the man who will write the critically acclaimed source volume for this film.
Whatever the weight of poverty and racism, Clifton is a child born to a lot of love, and the movie suggests passionately that if you are loved, you can do anything. Clifton's mother and father are young field hands, unmarried and in their teens, and incapable of raising him. Thus he is raised by his great-grandfather, Poppa, played with majestic dignity by Al Freeman Jr. Poppa (pronounced paw-paw) is not the sort of man they put on posters or to whom they give millions to wear a certain brand of basketball shoe, but he is, nevertheless, a true American hero. Powerfully dignified, full of love and patience and decency, he manages to pass on to his great-grandson a legacy of both respect and pride.
When Poppa can no longer care for Clifton, he goes to Ma Ponk, his great-aunt, played with a blast of determination and power by Phylicia Rashad, in another brilliant performance. For Ma Ponk -- takes over when Poppa leaves off, again giving the young man a powerful moral example and a powerful sense of love and security.
The performances are uniformly excellent: Richard Roundtree and Polly Bergen play a good-hearted iceman and a decent white woman who give Clifton a higher sense of possibility and, in Roundtree's case, show some of the economic consequences of racism in ways that no film has previously revealed.
The three young men who play Cliff at various ages -- Damon Hines (at 16), Willie Norwood Jr. (at 11) and Charles Earl "Spud" Taylor (at 8) are all terrific.
Reid, working from a screenplay by Paul W. Cooper, never preaches, hectors or lectures, but he makes his point. This isn't an atrocity exhibition, but more an examination of the subtleties of discrimination, far more a part of the daily lives of blacks living in the segregated South: all the little ways that, despite the unhurried give-and-take civility of a small town like Glen Allen, Miss., a black was always informed of his second-class status. The facilities were crummier when they existed at all, even the most respected of community members was expected to answer to either "boy" or a first name, just the crushing tapestry of normalcy in the pre-civil rights South.
"Sooner or later," says an old lady in the film, speaking a truth that will make far too many Caucasians uncomfortable, "a white person will act like a white person." The cheers from the audience at that quiet line suggest that it's still true.
"Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored"
Starring Al Freeman Jr. and Phylicia Rashad
Directed by Tim Reid
Released by BET Pictures/Republic
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 4/12/96