I Understood As a Child
In the 1998 Shadrach, Susanna Styron directs close to home, co-scripting from the 1978 short story by her famous father. Filmed in the area of Wilmington, Virginia, with most unconvincing accents but muted-color care for 1935 period and place, the result is a laid-back -- even too much so -- coming-of-age “in my tenth summer on earth [that] will never leave my mind.”
That is Martin Sheen´s narrator speaking, the adult reminiscing on the stranger who “brightened and darkened my life then and thereafter.” Whether or not an autobiographical stand-in for the Newport News author, this older and wiser omniscience does not translate well from the printed page, indeed might happily have been dispensed with altogether. Running times vary, from eighty-six to a hundred ten minutes, but even the latter, European print does not need this unseen presence looking back, setting scenes, and drawing a lesson learned (or not).
Days short of his own hundredth summer on earth, the title character has improbably hobbled and hitched six hundred miles to return to where he was born, not asking but assuming as his right to be laid among his people. This is three-quarters of a century after his Virginia master sold him into Alabama, where after the Civil War the freedman had sharecropped peanuts and outlived three wives and “twelve or fifteen children.”
In worn three-piece suit and neck scarf, hair and beard cottony white, John Franklin Sawyer’s Shadrach materializes to two best friends playing marbles. One of them is smiling Paul Whitehurst (Scott Terra), the storyۥs ten-year-old eye and, with Edmonia Dabney (Monica Bugajski), the only person who understands the centenarian’s whisperings and also the one who mentally pictures his ante-bellum youth. Thus the few flashbacks to that time are emotionally rather than factually accurate, and anachronisms such as a Mickey Mouse pocket watch are imagined (though its presentation phrasing is repeated in the film present, “Shad, right by your heart”).
At his pleading, Paul has been left by wealthy father Bill and adored sickly mother Pauline (Darrell Larsen, Deborah Hedwall), driving to a family funeral in Baltimore, with the Dabneys, once plantation owners -- the great-grandfather had sold Shadrach -- now reduced to Depression poverty in their landۥs outbuildings.
Brought up at least to use the softer Southern variant of the N-word, the foul-mouthed father Vernon (Harvey Keitel) faults FD--“for ‘disaster’”--R for the economy which leaves him scraping by on a moonshine still operated with “blabbermouth” Joe Thornton (Edward Bunker). Doing no observable work herself, wife Trixie (Andie McDowell) chain smokes , downs beer after beer, shows lots of leg, and has borne seven children who are strangers to soap and hence notorious for “BO -- in that squeamish era.” All three sons are named, or known as, Mole -- Little, Middle and Big -- the youngest (Daniel Treat) being the other marbles player.
The frail ex-slave is taken in by this family, too. While Presbyterians sermonize on helping those less fortunate in times of trouble, and family ties were stronger then, the film still softens the racial divide. A pestiferous outhouse is for Whites Only, but no one at all is offended by the strange family addition. Reviewers noted that African-Americans could not be buried alongside Caucasians, but, while suggesting the black Little Chapel of the Dawn Mortuary, King and Queen Country sheriff Chaswell Lewis (Muse Watson) actually only reiterates Commonwealth law that prohibits burial of anyone on private property, including the chock-full two-hundred-year old Dabney graveyard.
At a mill pond where both races have long swum naked or in chemises, the narrator has Paul understanding that the dying returnee is there to recover an earlier innocence from the one entirely free moment of his life. Gruff on the outside, mouthing platitudes about blacks being happier way back when, Vernon must find a way to satisfy man, woman and children, on the one hand, and the Law on the other.
A vignette, really, a couple days in a boyۥs life recollected in tranquillity, Shadrach could have used with a firmer hand. But then, it would not have been the pleasing if slight picture that it is. Concluding voiceover on the finality of time and death, and peaceful or agonizing ends to life, is unwarranted weight for this delicate vehicle.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated “PG-13” for language and brief sexuality.)