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`COLORED' GOES STRAIGHT FOR THE HEART

If you're longing for a movie to sweep you up emotionally instead of sweeping you up in special effects, bypass "Twister" and head for the smaller but much more richly rewarding "Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored."

Having gathered together a terrific ensemble cast, first-time director/co-producer Tim Reid (who played "Venus Flytrap" on "WKRP in Cincinnati") has fashioned a wonderful tapestry of disparate personalities living in and around Glen Allan, Miss., in a poor area known as "Colored Town."Segregation is a way of life when the film begins in 1946, and by the time "Once Upon a Time . . . " reaches its conclusion in 1962, the central character, young Cliff (played at different ages by a number of fine young actors), has learned some tough but inspiring lessons about life.

The most inspiring come at the knee of his doting grandfather (wonderfully played by Al Freeman Jr.), and then in the example of his aunt (a lovely performance by Phylicia Rashad), who provide his primary parental figures. (One stirring sequence has 5-year-old Cliff learning to read a couple of letters - "W" and "C" - so he will know which drinking fountain and rest room he may use, since those for "whites" are separate from those for "coloreds.")

But unlike so many movies today, this one acknowledges that many other people provide role models for each of us, and they are especially important in the life of a young man growing up black in the poverty-stricken rural South.

The hardships Cliff and those in his extended "family" suffer are outlined here, as we see a Ku Klux Klan march, the awakening of a wealthy white woman (Polly Bergen), the threatened livelihood of a local iceman (Richard Roundtree), the mistreatment of workers in the cotton fields, etc.

None of these provides explosive moments, and the film is told in a gradually affecting series of episodes and anecdotal moments, the kind that shape people, and, for good or ill, the kind that touch other people's lives.

The emphasis is clearly on the support group provided by the community's "family" ethic, if you will, and the result provides a lot of recognizable moments, while still making a serious comment about racism in America.

"Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored" is based on the coming-of-age autobiography of author Clifton Taulbert, and the film was obviously a labor of love for everyone involved.

As a director, Reid is all heart, and he certainly knows how to connect with an audience on an emotional level. He does occasionally let things get away from him, so that some storylines go on too long and begin to meander, threatening at times to overwhelm the narrative thread. (A bit of judicious editing could have made a big difference; at nearly two full hours, the film itself is also too long.)

But the collective heartfelt impact is quite powerful, and most of the cast is flawless.

The film has not been widely released, and is only slowly moving across the country. But it's a film that deserves to be seen.

Here's hoping the summer blockbusters, which will play in dozens of local theaters for weeks, won't take audience attention from this one.

"Once Upon a Time . . . " is rated PG for some violence, primarily a barroom brawl.