1 9 8 9 (USA)
2 x 120 minute episodes
This ABC miniseries (based on a novel by Gloria Naylor) aired over two nights in March 1989 and was produced by Oprah Winfrey’s firm, Harpo Inc. Winfrey served as executive producer and starred in the production.
Spanning several decades, the story depicted the battles fought by African-American women against racism, poverty, and sexism (although interpersonal struggles and conflicts also peppered the storyline).
Mattie Michael (Winfrey) began her journey from her family’s Tennessee farm to the rundown housing project tenement on Brewster Place when she refused to reveal the name of her unborn child’s father to her parents (Mary Alice and Paul Winfield).
Milestones for Mattie included living in the home of kindly Miss Eva (Barbara Montgomery) until she died and willed the house to Mattie, then forfeiting the house when her son, Basil (Eugene Lee), jumped bail after Mattie used their home as collateral for his bond.
She finally arrived at Brewster Place, visibly worn and weary of the world.
Kiswana Browne (Robin Givens) left her wealthy, upper-class family and moved to the neighbourhood to live with her boyfriend. They worked to organise the neighbours, to plan special activities for the neighbourhood, and to protest their excessive rent.
Cora Lee (Phyllis Stickney) continued to have children because she wanted the dependency of infants: once they became toddlers, her interest in them faltered.
By the end of the series, however, she began to see the importance of all her children, and after being prodded by Kiswana. she attended the neighbourhood production of an African-American adaptation of a Shakespearean play.
Miss Sophie (Olivia Cole), an unhappy woman and the neighbourhood busybody, pedalled spiteful gossip about her neighbours in the tenement. Etta Mae (Jackee), Mattie’s flamboyant, cunning and loyal childhood friend, moved to Brewster Place for refuge from her many failed romances.
Lucielia Louise Turner (Lynn Whitfield) – known as “Ciel” – was a housewife and mother who lived a somewhat happy life with her husband, Ben (Moses Gunn), and daughter, Serena, in one of the tenement apartments until Ben lost his job and left home. Ciel then aborted their second child, and Serena was electrocuted when she used a fork to chase a roach into a light socket.
Theresa and Lorraine (Paula Kelly and Lonette McKee) decided to reside on Brewster Place because as lesbians they were seeking a place where they could live without ridicule and torment. Their relationship, soon discovered by their neighbours, became the backdrop for the drama’s finale.
Criticism of the miniseries began before the drama aired. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) requested to review the scripts before production to determine whether the negative images of the African-American male presented in the Naylor book appeared in the television drama. This request was denied, but Winfrey – also concerned with the image of black men in the novel – altered several of the male roles.
Ben Turner, the tenement’s janitor and a drunk in Naylor’s novel, was revamped for the teleplay and, in a scene created especially for the series, explained why he felt pressed into desertion. The producers also attempted to cast actors who could bring a level of sensitivity to the male roles and create characters who were more than one-dimensional villains.
Still, in a two-part series for the Washington Post, Dorothy Gilliam criticised the drama as one of the most stereotype-ridden polemics against black men ever seen on television, a series that, she claimed, trotted out nearly every stereotype of black men that had festered in the mind of the most feverish racist.
Though criticised for its portrayal of African-American men and women, The Women of Brewster Place offered its audience a rare glimpse of the United States’ black working class and conscientiously attempted to probe the personal relationships, dreams, and desires of a group of women who cared about their children and friends, worked long hours at jobs they may have hated in order to survive, and moved forward despite their disappointments.
A spin-off titled simply Brewster Place (also produced by Harpo Inc, aired for a few weeks in 1990 on ABC but was cancelled because of low ratings.
Etta Mae Johnson
Kiswana (Melanie) Browne
Ciel (Lucielia Louise Turner)
Douglas Turner Ward