Once Upon a Time...When We Were Colored

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Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored
Directed by Tim Reid
Screenplay by Paul W. Cooper
Based on Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored 
by Clifton Taulbert
Starring Al Freeman, Jr.
Phylicia Rashād
Narrated by Phill Lewis
BET Pictures
United Image Entertainment
Release dates
  • January 26, 1996 (1996-01-26) (United States)
Running time 115 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $3,375,000

Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored is a film[1] directed by Tim Reid and the screenplay was written by Paul W. Cooper. The film is based on Clifton Taulbert’s real life and his nonfiction book Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. The film plays out Taulbert’s life.

The film depicts the life of Taulbert from being a child targeted by the Ku Klux Klan at one point in his childhood to a young adult leaving his hometown for a better chance at living a better life that would not be achievable in the South.


The film takes place in Glen Allan, Mississippi, during the mid-1900s. In the early stages of the film, the audience gains more knowledge regarding Cliff’s upbringing. His biological mother was too young to take care of him and was not able to provide Cliff with financial support therefore he was raised by his extended family. Ma Pearl and Poppa begin to take care of him but after a couple of years, Ma Ponk begins to take care of Cliff and ultimately raises him, with the help of Poppa. Ma Pearl’s character is played by Paula Kelly, and Ma Ponk’s character is played by Phylicia Rashad.

Poppa’s character is played by Al Freeman, Jr.; Ma Ponk, Poppa, and Cliff are the three main characters in the film. Another scene that occurs early on in the film which helps to portray the racial climate during the 1950s in the South, is when Cliff and Poppa attend a parade hosted by the Ku Klux Klan and are confronted for being African Americans by a violent Ku Klux Klan member. As the film progresses, it is known that Cliff lives in a low-income, rural place where almost every adult is a laborer, most commonly a field worker. This is known when the narrator mentions that Cliff attends school in a single bungalow where his classmates are the children of servants, illiterate farm workers, poor field workers, and maids. Even his caregiver, Ma Ponk works in a cotton field picking cotton for a white farmer.

Also, the majority of the people living in this small town are part of a Christian church where at times they come together and unite to stay strong against the social injustices placed upon them. Ma Ponk is religious and is an active participant in her local Christian church since she attends mass regularly and is part of the church’s gospel choir. As the film progresses even more, the audience has the chance to see Cliff grow up into a hard-working young man with positive aspirations of becoming educated. Cliff begins working for an older white woman, Ms. Mavory, who begins to show an interest in educating and enlightening Cliff. She asks him if he likes to read and he says yes therefore she then begins to make trips to the local library and checks out books for Cliff to read.

One book that she checks out for Cliff is Homer's Iliad. Cliff reads it and mentions to Cleve that he actually enjoys reading the book. The fact that Cliff enjoys reading great classics and strives to excel in school shows that he does want to make a positive change in society. He does not make a radical change but instead makes a subtle positive change by choosing to work hard and continue his education. When Cliff grows older and finishes his high school education, he leaves his hometown to migrate North. He leaves the South in hope of finding a better life and reaching his dreams.


Differences between the South and the North; why people flee the South[edit]

In the early 1900s, the majority of African Americans in the United States lived in the Southern states. About a mere ten percent lived in the northeastern states and midwestern states. In 1910, the migration of African Americans to the northern states began.[2] The population of African Americans residing in the northern states rose from about ten percent to 40 percent. This specific migration caused a decline in the percentage of African American living in the South. In some southern states, such as Mississippi and South Carolina, the percentage of African Americans living there changed from about 50 percent in 1910 to about 30 percent in 1970.[3]

This great migration can be subdivided into two different migrations occurring during different years. The first set of migration occurred mainly between the years of 1910 and 1940 and it is called the First Great Migration. Larger, urban cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland attracted the majority of the percentage of African Americans living in the northern states. The demographics of the people who usually moved to the northern states were African American individuals or small African American families. The second set of migration is called the Second Great Migration.

This migration occurred mainly during the years of 1940 to 1970. During the second migration, African Americans began to migrate to other regions of the United States. African Americans moved out of the South because of the growing violent racism against them. African Americans fled the South so that they could escape discrimination caused by the Jim Crow laws. Also, there were more job openings for African Americans in the North. Laws such as the Immigration Act of 1924 placed a halt to the immigration of Europeans which in turn enabled African Americans to obtain job positions without such a high competition for job openings.

The North also offered a better racial climate than the South did. In the film, Miss Alice is an example of an African American individual who left the South for better living conditions and better opportunities in the North. In the film, Miss Alice confesses to Momma Ponk that she left her hometown in the South to pursue her dreams of working the entertainment industry. Another example of an African American individual leaving migrating to the North is Cliff, the protagonist. Cliff leaves his hometown, Glen Allan, to live in the North to follow his dreams and have an opportunity at a better life.

Cliff left the South to migrate to the North because of the resources that the North had to offer, which his small hometown lacked. His small hometown did not have the resources he sought for, such as a good education and better job opportunities. The North essentially represented a place where African Americans had a much better opportunity at living a better life where violent racism did not exist and dreams were within one’s reach.

Fighting for change and progress[edit]

Another theme in the film that may portray some challenges that African Americans faced while living in the South was persecution for resisting to conform to the way they were being treated. There were certain African American individuals that fought for change and progress in the South. These individuals sought to create positive change in order to enable other African Americans better living situations in the South. These individuals risked their lives whenever they attempted to make a stand against the violent racism expressed against African Americans in the South.

If they were ever seen or caught doing something against the norm, something in favor for progress, they would be severely beaten and sometimes even lynched. In the film, an example of this is when Sammy is dropped off nearby Ma Ponk’s home by a group of white men in a pick-up truck. Sammy then goes to Ma Ponk’s home where the viewer becomes aware of what recently happened, which is the fact that Sammy was severely beaten by that group of white men.

Ma Ponk receives him into her home and scolds him for protesting against the white man’s society. She scolds him for choosing to sit in the white man’s seating area in a movie theater and for refusing to comply with the societal laws placed upon African Americans residing in the South. Sammy then tells Ma Ponk that those white men will kill him the next time they catch him for doing something that they do not approve of. But, even after he has been beaten up badly, Sammy refuses to give up on fighting for positive change and progress in the South.

He then chooses to leave and run away to the North because he refuses to become a slave working in a white man’s field, to be humiliated or discriminated against whenever he goes somewhere. Sammy was fortunate enough to not be murdered and have a chance to escape the South but in real life, not everyone was as fortunate. Sammy’s situation is a common example of the violent mistreatment and persecution that many African Americans faced who chose to take action against the injustices that the white man’s society enacted upon them.

Unity, Hope, Religion[edit]

One of the themes in the film is unity. Religion and hope are recurring concepts within the theme of unity. The main characters in the film subscribe to a Christian church and as a result, follow the religion. Ma Ponk seems to be fairly active in the church since she sings in the church’s gospel choir. The concept of unity is seen through several examples throughout the entire film.

One of the primary examples of unity in the film is the fact that Cliff, Ma Ponk, and Poppa are always together and form a strong support system for each other. Ma Ponk and Poppa raised and took care of Cliff and provided him with hope, love, and morals. Also, throughout the film, the characters never seem to lose hope in achieving something better. Another example of unity in the film is the union and support system that the field and labor workers have. Together, they stand together and support each other during times of hardship.

For example, when Cleve begins to lose several of his clients to bigger businesses owned by white men, in this case the business is named A&D, the other people in the community begin to support him even more. The first few glimpses of unity in this situation is when the community gathers at their local Christian church and begin to discuss the issue with A&D taking over Cleve’s business. One woman stands up, speaks, and says that her boss threatened to fire her if she did not begin to subscribe to A&D’s service. Instead of complying with her boss’s demands, the woman chooses to quit her job in order to support Cleve. This action is one of the first examples that epitomizes the unity that exists in their community.

Then, later on in the film, there is a scene where the field workers’ white boss notifies the field workers that they are to purchase ice from A&D. The white man mentions that if anyone refuses to comply with the demand, he or she will be discharged. Then, one by one, each field worker places down his or her working tools and boards the pick up truck that takes the field workers home. The boss is then left with no field workers because each worker decided to stand united, stay loyal to Cleve and to what is just.

Separate but equal[edit]

The author says the greatest injustice is the idea of separate but equal. Another theme in the film is about a constitutional law which occurred in real life that brought upon more social injustice to African Americans. Cliff argues that the greatest injustice in society is the doctrine of separate but equal, especially in academic institutions. Cliff mentions that there was a school close to his home in Glen Allan but he could not attend because that school was for white students only.

Therefore, every colored student had to be transported by bus to a school farther away that was intended for only colored students to attend. The idea of being separate but equal was that colored individuals had to have separate facilities from those of white individuals’. Everything had to be separate, ranging from a public restroom to a public academic institution. This idea claimed that even though the facilities were separate, they were still essentially equal.

However, this was not true. The facilities employed by the white individuals were indeed in better conditions and had better quality services. For example, a school for white individuals employed better teachers and the facilities were in better shape in general when compared to a school for colored individuals only. Cliff mentions this issue of a lack of equality in the film when he begins to speak about the idea of separate but equal. Cliff argues that the school that he attended and the school that his white counterparts attended were definitely separate but not equal. They were clearly separate since the schools were miles away from each other in fairly distant locations but they were also clearly not equal.

The school intended for white students had better resources therefore they provided their students with better resources. On the other hand, the school that Cliff attended most likely lacked the resources that the other school had. These resources could have possibly ranged from having a wider variety of books, better quality material to teach, higher quality classrooms and necessary school supplies. However, one great thing that Cliff mentions about his academic experience is that he had highly dedicated teachers who strived to encourage their students to always excel.


  1. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114039/.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ Hahn, Steven. A Nation Under Our Feet (2003), The Belknap Press of Harvard University, ISBN 0-674-01765-X.
  3. ^ Gibson, Campbell and Kay Jung (September 2002). Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and By Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, For The United States, Regions, Divisions, and States. U.S. Bureau of the Census - Population Division.

Further reading[edit]

  • Taulbert, Clifton. Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored. Penguin (Non-classics), 1995