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Heroes of the Heart

Family Affair: Al Freeman Jr. comforts a young relation (Charles Earl Taylor Jr.) in the nostalgic look backward "Once Upon a Time ..."

A fine cast cuts through the nostalgic corn of 'Once Upon a Time'

By Richard von Busack

'YOUNG PEOPLE need intermediate heroes," author Clifton Taulbert once noted. The adaptation of Taulbert's Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored supplies these small-scale heroes, but unfortunately, the movie is intermediate, too. It's based on a small-press book by the Oklahoma author that ended up lauded in the New York Times. Director Tim Reid, of WKRP in Cincinnati fame, has created a film deeply corny in spots, with intrusive narration by screenwriter Paul W. Cooper.

The village of Glen Allan, Miss., seen from the end of WWII into the years of the civil-rights movement, is a sort of African American Walton's Mountain, complete with the pencil eraser-chewing pensées that Richard Thomas used to utter when summing up what we'd all just seen perfectly clearly.

Cliff (Willie Norwood Jr.) is raised by his great-grandfather (Al Freeman Jr.) and an extended family of friends and relations. As he grows up, Cliff faces discrimination and prejudice, although he's given classics to read by a severe but decent old white lady, played by Polly Bergen. The story avoids most of the cruelty of a cruel era, and it would--except for some painless scenes of childbirth and bar fighting--be a good kids' movie.

What this golden nostalgia for a down-home past really proves is how many extraordinary actors there are who, simply because of race, aren't given more of a chance than they would have gotten 40 or 50 years ago. The cast includes Richard Roundtree, who does some satisfying hamming around an unlit cigar as the Cleve the Iceman, his flirtatiousness showing off why it was that the iceman had such a risqué reputation long ago, while Freeman's ageless dignity could be described as sanctity without the odor of sanctity.

Especially consider Leon, who plays the ambitious young man named Melvin. Why isn't the single-named actor (he was one of the kennel of dogs in Waiting to Exhale) a bigger star? Here is a man who ought to be playing A Streetcar Named Desire--he has Brando's own magnetism and self-possession, and when he's on screen the other actors vanish. Leon supplies a lot of things the movie has been missing until his appearance: irony, wit, a sexual charge. Naturally, he's shipped off back to the Detroit halfway through, and the movie halts as if it had been shot with a tranquilizer dart.

Once Upon a Time ... is the traditional prelude for fairy tales, but fairy tales ought to have more menace, meanings that we don't easily grasp, levels within levels. This film has a noble purpose, to show a time when people looked out for one another, but movies that simplify the experiences of the past just make the past seem all the more unreachable.

Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored (PG; 113 min.), directed by Tim Reid, written by Paul W. Cooper, based on the book by Clifton L. Taulbert and starring Al Freeman Jr., Leon and Richard Roundtree.

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of Metro

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