Monday, February 18, 2013

‘Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored’ (1995) directed by Tim Reid

Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored shows us pleasant, dreamy rural life.  The film paints us a picture of a friendly, open community where everybody is a trusted neighbour, working and praying together.  It’s idyllic, which is a little surprising as this film is about a segregated black community in the 40s and 50s, the ‘colored town’ of Glen Allan, Mississippi.  Through the eyes of the town’s residents, we follow the progress of the civil rights movement, which seems a distant concern to this community deep in the heart of apartheid America.

The film, an adaptation of Clifton Taulbert’s book of the same name, tells the story of the author's life.  We begin with his birth, which appropriately enough takes place in the cotton fields his mother works in.  She’s young, and the father wants nothing to do with the baby so he ends up being raised by his grandparents, Ma Pearl (Paula Kelly) and Poppa (Al Freeman Jr).  The film is episodic, examining key events in Cliff’s life as he grows up in the community, with a voiceover provided by an older Cliff that explains how his experiences informed the man he became.

Charles Earl Taylor Jr as Cliff (5 years old).
I attended a screening at the BFI, as part of their ‘African Odysseys’ season, and we were fortunate enough to have the director, Tim Reid, in attendance to both introduce the film and answer questions about it.  He was a fascinating speaker, explaining why he doesn’t think a film like Once Upon a Time... could be made anymore.  The film was shot on a relatively low budget, with many of the actors in the film appearing for below their normal wage.  Things were run so austerely that apparently the last shot cuts away because the camera ran out of film!

What I found most interesting was that Reid repeatedly defines his artistic output as propaganda.  He doesn’t shy away from the negative connotations of the word, but considers it the most honest way to define what he wants to do: put worthwhile ideas out into the world.  He that with the advent of globalisation it’s important for artists and entertainers to understand just how far the reach of US popular culture spreads.  To illustrate his point, Reid explains how he visited a tribal society living in mud huts in Africa and saw a young boy wearing a “thug life” t-shirt.  So, a worthwhile question to ask is: what exactly is Once Upon a Time... propaganda for?

The film isn't black and white by the way, these are just the publicity shots. 
Unfortunately the answer isn’t particularly straightforward, which arguably means that the film has failed at being propaganda at the first hurdle.  If you have to puzzle out what message the film is trying to tell you, then it’s not communicating an idea or philosophy very well.  This, ultimately, is the problem with Once Upon a Time....  Reid, who was attracted to the project because it reflected his own childhood growing up in a ‘colored town’ is at pains to emphasise that the “good old days” weren’t good at all.  For the most part though, the film shows life in Glen Allan as rural bliss.  An austere and dusty kind of bliss perhaps, but the tables are always overflowing with delicious looking food; the neighbours are always caring and attentive; the elderly are always wise and ready with some homespun advice.  These do very much look like the ‘good old days’.

Easily the best scenes are those when characters leave the protective bubble of Glen Allan.  It’s here that the film has more of an edge, where we sense the social vise that our characters are in.  The finest scene in the film shows the young Clifton and Poppa heading out into town and enjoying an ice-cream.  There’s a Ku Klux Klan march processing through the town, and the two stand silently watching it.  One of the klan members notices them, and marches over, angrily spitting invective, calling Poppa ‘uppity’.  Al Freeman Jr has never looked more dignified than he does here, his composed and noble expression a perfect counterpoint to the blankness of the klan hood, two eyes screwed up with rage visible through the holes.  The klan member threatens to ‘get’ Poppa, and warns him to watch himself.  As the klan member stalks away the camera cuts to an ice cream cone in Poppa’s hand, he’s unconsciously made a fist, crushing the cone, white ice cream oozing down over his hand.  As a concise visual representation of his suppressed fury it’s hard to beat.

This scene seems to be leading up some kind of conflict, events appear to be looming that’ll disturb the pleasant tranquillity of Glen Allan.  But nothing particularly bad happens in the film, and Glen Allan rumbles along at its own pace, relatively undisturbed by the outside world for the entirety of the film’s running time.  If I was being uncharitable I’d suggest that at least to some degree, Once Upon a Time... romanticises segregation.  I don’t want to think it’s that simple though, after all, both the author of the book and director of film lived this story so this is their first-hand experience, and presenting an authentic account of history like this is important.

Al Freeman Jr as Poppa
In a purely educational sense the film is a success.  I’d never heard of Deep South ‘colored town’ communities like Glen Allan before seeing this film.  The attention to detail in the set design and costuming gives the place an authentic feel, which goes a long way towards showing you how people lived their lives under segregation.  Somewhat depressingly it’s also a rare depiction in media of a black community that’s not beset by crime and corruption, one that generally avoids easy stereotypes and stock characters.  One of the biggest feathers in the film’s hat is that it never shows the characters as victims; these are people that intelligently recognise the injustice of their oppression and seek to change things whilst creating a close and supportive community.

As a piece of cinema it’s slightly less successful.  It’s difficult to criticise a film on technical grounds, especially when it’s preaching such a worthwhile message with a limited budget, but certain aspects of it seem slightly off.  The score in particular is extremely heavy handed, with musical stings that feel right out of silent cinema.  There’s a scene in a raucous bar that raises faint giggles in the audience at how blatantly the score telegraphs the action.  Additionally, the episodic nature of the plot hurts any sense of narrative progression.  In one extended sequence we stop following Cliff’s story for about 15 or 20 minutes to concentrate on his cousin Melvin who’s returned to visit home after leaving for Detroit.  These digressions mean the plot meanders along with no real urgency, which does wonders in creating a dreamy atmosphere, but is a dreamy, relaxed atmosphere appropriate for a film dramatising part of the civil rights movement?

In one sense it's refreshing to see a narrative that examines the less dramatic elements of the civil rights movement; no scenes of dogs being set on peaceful marchers or water cannons here, this is a look at how the process affects a quiet backwoods rural community.  But despite this, there is a degree of complexity: we see members of the community speaking out against sending a delegate to an NAACP convention, claiming that they don’t want to stir up trouble.  But while Poppa makes a great speech decrying them, within the context and environment of the film you can see why these characters might think like this.  Things seem relatively pleasant - why rock the boat?

So this is a bit of a mixed bag. It's worth watching because it presents an untold story in cinema, with the implication that there must be a wealth of untold stories out there as fascinating as this that’ll go unmade purely because studios don’t see films like this as profitable.  It’s got a number of fantastic performances in it, the highlights being the magnetic Al Freeman Jr, Richard Roundtree playing against type and a resolutely unglamorous yet rock solid turn from Paula Kelly.  But though in many ways Once Upon a Time... has an embarrassment of riches, I found myself itching for it to fully sink its teeth into the social issues that remain tantalisingly and frustratingly just outside its dramatic sphere.  

Thanks to The Africa Channel for the tickets.

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