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
Narrated by Phill Lewis
BET Pictures
United Image Entertainment
Release date
  • 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 1996 film 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 non-fiction book Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored.[1]


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.


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