Aug. 13, 2000

“Shadrach”

 

       During the depression a 99-year old former slave named Shadrach walks from Alabama to Virginia, where he was born and raised on a plantation, so that he might die and be buried among his kin.  The descendants of the plantation owners are a poor, filthy dirty white trash family led by moonshiner Harvey Keitel and his wife, Andie McDowell, both of whom are alcoholics.  Keitel accepts the responsibility of burying Shadrach, when he dies, and he and his family all believe that Shadrach has as much of a right to be buried on this ground as they do.  Besides, Shadrach walked hundreds of miles to get there.
       However, the law says that people can’t be buried on private ground anymore, and Keitel will have to have Shadrach buried properly by a Negro undertaker at a Negro cemetery.  Sadly, Keitel has no money for a real funeral, and what little money he makes, he and his wife drink up.
       What you’ve got is a believable character with a difficult problem based on interesting motivations.  Well, to me, that’s the whole game.  You don’t need aliens attacking, car crashes, automatic weapons or tons of special effects -- you need a believable character with an interesting problem.
       Keitel and McDowell go out to the family graveyard, separated into the white section and the black section, and there are hundreds of graves from when it was a plantation dating back for 300 years, which includes all of Keitel’s relatives and most Shadrach’s relatives, too.
       You must see the film, which I caught on HBO, to find out what happens next, but it all ties up beautifully.  I really howled at the ending, too.
       The story is by Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron (“The Confessions of Nat Turner”), and the film was directed and co-written by his daughter, Susan, who did good work in both departments.  My only gripe would be that Shadrach should have told his own story, as opposed to whispering it to the children, so we could have gotten to know him a bit better -- it’s a small objection in the scheme of things.
       “Shadrach” is a perfectly reasonable, solid little film with a good story and a top-quality, thoughtful, funny performance by Harvey Keitel at its center.  Naturally, as things go these days, the film got almost no theatrical distribution.  All the money goes into the big-budget stinkers and the good films, if they get made at all, have to sneak out.  Well, somehow this film sneaked between the cracks and is very much worth seeing.


-Josh Becker

 

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