CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. This is the story of one of the most important films I've seen this year and of the show-business cliffhanger it prompts: Will it find the audience it deserves? Or will it drift into the neverland of home video, because it has been denied the right launching pad?
The movie is called "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored." It is a warm, touching, human drama about rural Southern blacks living in the years between 1946 and 1962, when segregation was slowly being dismantled. Life was hard for them, and many worked long days in the cotton fields, but life was also rich because of a self-sufficient black community of families and friends, churches and local businesses, friendship and mutual support.
The film was directed by Tim Reid, a television star ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place"), making his directorial debut. Based on the best-selling novel by Clifton Taulbert, it stars an extraordinary cast - 83 speaking roles - including such actors as Al Freeman Jr., Richard Roundtree, Bernie Casey, Leon, Isaac Hayes, Phylicia Rashad, Taj Mahal, Salli Richardson, Daphne Maxwell-Reid, Anna Maria Horsford, Paula Kelly and Polly Bergen as a local white woman.
How good is the film? Last week, it won a standing ovation before a mostly black audience at the Chicago International Film Festival. On Friday night, it won a standing ovation from a mostly white audience at the Virginia Film Festival.
I was in that audience here in Charlottesville. I have heard a lot of applause after a lot of movies. I know the difference between a polite response and true enthusiasm. I could feel the electricity in the air, as the audience applauded long and loud, through all the closing credits, and then rose to its feet for Reid. They loved it and talked about it through the weekend.
Independent productions like this follow a predictable journey into theaters, a journey whose most important step is in late January, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. That's the key marketplace for the American independent film industry, the place where all the top agents and distributors go. A movie like ". . . When We Were Colored," by all rights, should win the hearts of audiences at Sundance and follow in the footsteps of such previous Sundance discoveries as "Hoop Dreams," "The Brothers McMullen," "Reservoir Dogs," and "sex, lies, and videotape."
In theory, after a movie gets a big buzz at Sundance, journalists write about it, exhibitors fight for it and moviegoers hear about it. A Sundance launch can make all the difference in the world for an independent film.
Unfortunately, Sundance has turned down "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored."
"We were told it was too `soft,' " Reid told the Virginia Film Fest audience. "They said a `black film' needed more action and a stronger story line."
As things now stand, his film is tentatively set to be released by Republic Pictures on Jan. 12 (the Friday before the Martin Luther King holiday) in a handful of theaters, and then, he said optimistically, "It may grow from that platform and also eventually find an audience in video. I hope schoolkids will be able to see it."
That is not what should happen. The film calls for the kind of higher-profile national launch that Sundance provides.
In a nation torn by racial unhappiness, "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" is a film we need right now.
It is a film about dreams, ambitions, loyalties and hopes. It takes place within a society ruled by racial segregation, and it shows in microcosm the beginnings of the civil rights movement. It also celebrates family values, and shows them reflected in its black families who work, pray and prevail together.
There is extraordinary power in such scenes as one where a traveling carnival-show dancer is suddenly moved to tears by the memory of her own mother. And in a scene where the local ice man (Roundtree) is forced out by a big white-owned company, and his neighbors risk their jobs to support him.
Is it too "soft"? It is as powerful as any film I have seen this year. It contains great force and anger - but constructive anger, not negative hatred. Does it need more "action"? Tim Reid told me: "After the movie, a woman told me, `This is the first black film I have seen in years where the only death is natural.' "
Perhaps the Sundance programmers saw only part of the film, on video. Any other explanation for the festival's rejection is inexplicable. (Sundance officials were not available for comment.)
Among the industry professionals who saw it at Virginia were writer and director Frank Pierson ("Dog Day Afternoon," "Citizen Cohn"), who said he planned to call and protest the Sundance decision. Actor Ruben Blades said, "I'm gonna light a fire under those guys. They can't deny this film its showcase - this is the kind of film Sundance is supposed to be discovering!"
And producer Doro Bachrach, whose credits include the recent HBO film "Truman," shook her head sadly and said, "Sundance is being co-opted by the industry mainstream. They're just catering to all those little agents who go out there looking for the next (Quentin) Tarantino."
How important is Sundance? For a film like ". . . When We Were Colored," it is crucial, because that is where the history of the American independent film is written every year. Audiences in Chicago and Virginia may cheer, but the air is thin in Utah, and their message may not carry. Without Sundance, this film may not be properly launched, and its chances are diminished. Since Sundance prefers to premiere U.S. films, and the film was submitted to other festivals after its Sundance rejection, the festival might now argue that it doesn't "qualify." That would be an absurdity on top of a misfortune.
Meanwhile, I leave today for the Hawaii International Film Festival, and I have arranged for a print of the film to be sent there for screenings in Honolulu and on Maui.
It's too late to make the printed program, but audiences have a way of finding films that speak to them. All they need is half a chance.