"Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored," Clifton Taulbert's memoir of growing up in the segregated South, has become a splendid and virtually unique film.
     It celebrates how black families survived despite an oppressive, monolithic and often deadly racism rather than concentrating on how so many African Americans have been destroyed by it. It has a tremendous nostalgic pull for anyone who misses simpler times and the loving warmth of extended family, yet it never loses sight of the social and economic injustices and very real dangers that African Americans confronted--and continue to confront--as part of their daily lives.
     Indeed, the very day that Cliff is born in a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1946, the white straw boss (Frank Taylor) makes it clear that his teenage mother, Mary (Karen Malina White), will be docked her pay and so will her aunt Ma Ponk (Phylicia Rashad) for serving as midwife. Yes, Mary is unwed and Cliff's father is heading north with the deathless promise, "Soon as I get a job, I'll come back to get you."
     But Cliff, who is played with seamless effectiveness by Charles Earl "Spud" Taylor Jr. at 5, Willie Norwood Jr. at 12 and Damon Hines at 16, is blessed with an extraordinary great-grandfather, Poppa (Al Freeman Jr.), a retired preacher. When Cliff's mother marries and leaves him with his great-grandparents, and when the health of his great-grandmother (Paula Kelly) begins to fail, he is taken in by Ma Ponk, a loving woman of quiet strength; she and Poppa will be the great positive shaping forces of Cliff's steadfast character.
     Adapter Paul W. Cooper has structured the unfolding of Cliff's childhood and teenage years as a series of linked yet almost self-contained vignettes so luminous, so carefully nuanced, under first-timer Tim Reid's loving, insightful direction that "Once Upon a Time" is studded with the kind of stand-out moments that usually occur once or twice in most good movies.
     Among the very best is the heartbreaking moment when it comes time for Poppa to start teaching little Cliff the realities of segregation. Another is when one of Cliff's first employers, an aristocratic white woman (Polly Bergen, a delight) opens the door to great literature for him when she's made to realize that the local library is closed to blacks.
     Two visitors to Ma Ponk's home reveal the conflict blacks have experienced in trying to square away their longing for the greater freedom and opportunity provided by departure and the pull of family and home. After an absence of 10 years, Ma Ponk's son Melvin (Leon) returns from Detroit, where he is an auto worker, a sharp dude who realizes he could never live in Mississippi again but also can't take care of the adolescent, already bitter younger brother so eager to go back with him. The other visitor is Lurlean (Beatrice Bush, in a stunning portrayal), a dancer who's escaped the South some time ago but has now ended up performing in a touring carnival, reminded by Ma Ponk of the mother who rejected her. "Once Upon a Time" climaxes in 1962, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, an era of promise and danger demanding the utmost courage and unity on the part of African Americans and their supporters.      A beautifully wrought film in all its aspects, "Once Upon a Time" glows with an array of beautiful, selfless performances, led by Freeman, Rashad and Richard Roundtree (as a brave ice-dealer who leads a boycott) that gives full dimension to individuals who may seem to be too good to be true--that is, until we think back on all people who loved us when we were children.


Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored, 1996. PG, for thematic elements, including mild violence and some sensuality. A Republic Pictures release of a Bet Pictures presentation of a United Image Entertainment production. Producer-director Tim Reid. Producer Michael Bennett. Executive producer Butch Lewis. Screenplay by Paul W. Cooper; based on the book by Clifton L. Taulbert. Cinematographer John Simmons. Editor David Pincus. Costumes Winnie D. Brown. Music Steve Tyrell. Production designer Michael Clausen. Art director / construction coordinator Geoffrey S. Grimsman. Set decorator Kristen McGary. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Al Freeman Jr. as Poppa. Phylicia Rashad as Ma Ponk. Willie Norwood Jr. as Cliff. Leon as Melvin.