***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** ....When We Were Colored is a well-intentioned, visually appealing movie that suffers from a pointless script and some poor acting. I try to recommend movies that paint a true picture of Americana - warts and all - especially those with historical slants, but this one has too many holes to make it worthwhile. If you're looking for reasons to see it, here are a few:
Positives: Al Freeman Jr. as "Poppa" is very good. He was the only believable character in the story. The "look" of the old south is very authentic, and great care was taken in securing vehicles, signage, clothing, etc. The music is "OK", especially in the Juke Joint scene, but I would have expected more in a film examining black southern culture during the time period.
Negatives: The plot is really just a bunch of cliches lopped together. Sure, a five year old kid in the deep south in the 1940s would be influenced by segregated bathrooms and water fountains, and the sight of a KKK parade down mainstreet, but (for the purposes of this film) so what? We've seen these images before (see recommendations below), and here they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot. An inordinate amount of time is spent on a peripheral character, Cliff's cousin (?) Melvin, who returns from Detroit to tell everybody how great it is up there. All he does is get in a knife fight, pick up some girl we never met before, and go back to Detroit. Again, what does this have to do with the plot? There are other well-intended, heart-string tugging moments, like the death of a family member, but such events are by no means uniquely southern, uniquely black, nor unique to the time period. (Spoiler ahead) Geesh, everybody's grandparents have died. Finally, while most of the cast is at least passable, some of the school-age boys look and sound like they were pulled off current-day schoolyards and shoved into knickers. I didn't find their dialogue to be particularly southern in its derivation.
As I say, I hate to pan a well-intentioned movie like this, and for some, just seeing what life in the deep south earlier in the last century may be enough - it does seem to be authentic. It could be argued that this is just a "slice of life" movie with no real intention other than to educate, but I felt as if I had seen it all before. If you want good movies on related topics, try Driving Miss Daisy (closest in time period - the final scene makes me cry), Four Little Girls (great documentary by Spike Lee), Ghosts of Mississippi (not a great film, but at least historically interesting), Mississippi Burning, Eve's Bayou (the best of these movies), The Color Purple, or even Soul Food (more contemporary, but an interesting story of black family life). There are many more....
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