nys writers logo

Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored

(American, 1995, 115 minutes, color)

Directed by Tim Reid

Damon Hines..........Cliff at 16
Al Freeman Jr...........Poppa
Richard Roundtree..........Cleve
Phylicia Rashad..........Ma

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

It was a time “when sharecroppers dreamed,” wrote memoirist Clifton Taulbert in his remembrance Once Upon a Time...When Were Colored, and their dreams were of escape from the Jim Crow South, of a better life for their children, of finally getting a real stake in the world they had helped to build with their endless toil. Taulbert grew up in a place called Glen Allan, a tiny Mississippi Delta cotton plantation town, and the world he knew--of segregated movie theaters, of steaming blues barbecues, of shining white dresses at eighth-grade cotillions, of forbidden juke joints and cooch dancers, of family trips to Greenwood to see another relative board the train for the one-way trip to Chicago, or Detroit -- that world is gone forever.

Taulbert left the Delta in 1962 as a young man, as hundreds of thousands before him had, thankful to put the racism and lack of opportunity of the cotton South behind him. As he grew older, though, he understood that this time of gross social injustice and rigid segregation meant that Black families and communities had to stick together merely to survive, economically and psychologically. What resulted was an unparalleled closeness among members of a community, a closeness Taulbert is not alone in wishing to see again. In his fond recollections, Taulbert painted a world that mirrors Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a portrait of a small Southern town with its lost folkways and memorable characters frozen in amber.

Actor-director Tim Reid (WKRP in Cincinnati, Frank’s Place) was drawn to Taulbert’s affectionate portrait of Glen Allan, and pulled together financing from many sources (including Black Entertainment Television) to mount a production rich in period detail, and loaded with great performances by beloved performers; there are 83 speaking parts in this film that spans four generations. Reid’s film is not as concerned with any particular moment as it is with all moments, with the reassuring tides of daily life advancing and retreating. Whether it is a fiery sermon in a plain, back country church, a young boy’s treasured ice cream cone, or a breathless Black crowd gathered around a radio to listen to boxer Joe Lewis whip yet another white pretender, young Clifton’s story is one of a thousand bright images. As a result, the flow and texture of Black life in the South is more fully realized in Once Upon a Time... than in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. If anything, Once Upon a Time... harks back to the brief moment of Black family films of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s such as Sounder and The Learning Tree.

The realities of segregation are never far away from Glen Allan. The long shadow of the KKK looms even over the young Clifton, and we watch the community fearfully debate joining the incipient Civil Rights movement. And through it all, Glen Allan labors under the broiling Delta sun, bending its back to the rhythms of the cotton-growing season, planting, chopping and picking... planting, chopping, and picking... planting, chopping, and picking... Working, as the sharecroppers used to say, “from cain’t to cain’t” -- “from when you cain’t see in the morning to when you cain’t see at night.” Eventually, Clifton Taulbert left Glen Allan, joining the human river that flowed North out of the Delta, through Memphis and on to Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York in the greatest internal migration in American history.

Taulbert was one of over a million Black pilgrims seeking a promised land in those years. Now, Delta towns like Glen Allan, once bustling miniatures of Black society, have gone to sleep, perhaps forever; cotton is harvested, anonymously, by huge mechanical pickers, and the slim living the pickers and croppers once pulled from the Delta’s fertile soil is no longer possible. Characters like Poppa, Cleve, and Ma Ponk are gone, too, but their laughter and singing can still be heard on hot, still Delta nights. Now, their voices echo again, through Clifton Taulbert’s book and Tim Reid’s loving adaptation. Both are lessons in remembering. Richard Wright, in his 1941 12 Million Black Voices, pronounced the epitaph on the sharecroppers’ life in the beautiful, bitter Delta: “But whether in spring or summer or autumn or winter, time slips past us remorselessly, and it is hard to tell of the iron that lies beneath the surface of our quiet dull, days.”

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at