Based on a semiautobiographical story by William Styron, with a screenplay cowritten and directed by his daughter Susanna, Shadrach is a didactic Depression-era tale of an ancient former slave (John Franklin Sawyer) who treks to what’s left of the plantation he worked on to die and be buried. But Shadrach’s dying wish proves difficult tohonor for his former owners’ struggling descendants, a Snopes-like brood of unwashed boys and slatternly girls, headed by bootlegger Vernon Dabney (Harvey Keitel) and his magnolia-scented wife (Andie MacDowell).
Why does Shadrach return to the fiery furnace where he was forged? Hard to say, since he speaks in a whisper understood only by the youngest Dabney girl and family friend Paul (Scott Terra). Narrator Paul gets to infer the motivations of Shadrach, whom the movie treats like an old dog, even as it praises the Dabneys for treating him humanely. The only fully human character is Vernon, with Keitel bringing to blustery life a complex man who does the right thing by Shadrach without overcoming the prejudices of his time and place. It’s Keitel who delivers the film’s moral, ”Death ain’t much,” with the rueful knowledge that life ain’t much either.