Courtesy Photo
86 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, October 16, 1998
Co-written & directed by Susanna Styron

Starring Harvey Keitel, Andie MacDowell, Scott Terra, John Franklin Sawyer & Daniel Treat

Story of ex-slave returning to his plantation home to die is stretched too thin at feature length

As the other slavery-centered movie opening this weekend, "Shadrach" is doomed to be lost in the wake of "Beloved," a exorbitantly promoted, Oscar-baiting epic. Usually when a small film like this one is trampled by a blockbuster, it's to the shame of Hollywood system. But in the case of these two films, not only is "Beloved" superior, but "Shadrach" isn't really anything to go out of your way for anyway.

The story of a 99-year-old ex-slave who walks hundreds of miles to spend his last days on the Virginia plantation where he was born and kept in his youth, "Shadrach" is a noble effort gone awry with attempts at momentous, pretentious meaning.

Unnecessarily and somewhat clumsily narrated by Martin Sheen as the reminiscing adult voice of an upper crust 10-year-old (Scott Terra) spending a liberating week with his hillbilly neighbors. When Shadrach comes calling, the movie uses this kid as the catalyst for telling the story of the old man and his benefactors, the Dabneys, the Great Depression-destitute descendants of his plantation masters.

Andie MacDowell and Harvey Keitel head the Dabney brood of seven kids, which now sustains itself on the shaky moonshine trade. The only two performances of note in the film, McDowell is perfectly at home as a nurturing Southern mom (although she looks far to young to have grown sons) and Keitel overplays his irascible, reluctantly complacent bootlegger just enough to give him many implied shades of character.

Shadrach himself (John Franklin Sawyer), while ostensibly the center of the story, is in fact sinfully under-utilized. Charmingly weathered, white-haired and benign, he hardly speaks but to mumble in the children's ears, yet he's clearly the character with the most to contribute to the story.

Co-writer and director Susanna Styron, who before this film had made only shorts, would have done better to stick with the brief medium with which she's familiar, because "Shadrach" would have made a great 40-minute film.

The novel seed at the center of the story loses much of its impact and interest when stretched to feature length with hackneyed conflict, like the Dabney's confrontation with a backwater sheriff who virtually ignores the their moonshine operation but is a stickler for the county's burial laws, which state you can't put someone to rest on private land, leaving Kietel no option but to shell out money he doesn't have to get Shad a burial plot at the local black church.

"Shadrach" is ripe with possibilities and rich in 1930s period flavor (although there is one foolish costuming snafu), but it just makes too many mistakes in trying to stretch the ingredients to fit the feature-length mold. A great idea poorly executed.

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