30th Anniversary: The Women of Brewster Place’ & Its Authentic Portrayal of Black Women on TV
In honor of Women’s History Month, I honor how the 1989 ABC miniseries was progressive in showcasing the facets of black women on television.
When I’m on a nostalgic trip, I can hear the sound of the late Vesta Williams’ vocal runs from the theme of The Women of Brewster Place that turns into me falling into a rabbit hole watching clips on YouTube.
“Go on Jessie.”
“I’m making meatloaf! You old bat! Meatloaf the way normal people make it!”
There are stories that earnestly explore the experiences of women that resonate. The ones with characters that stay with you and in ways you see glimpses of your mother, sister, friend, or the girls from the neighborhood. The Women of Brewster Place is cherished for how it showed the essence of the women that shaped its story that at that time was revolutionary.
Debuting on March 19, 1989, on the ABC Network for a two-night event, the miniseries brought this beloved story to the masses starring Oprah Winfrey, Jackee Harry, Lynn Whitfield, Robin Givens, Cicely Tyson, Olivia Cole, Paula Kelly, Lorette McKee, and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney. Also starring actors Leon and a young Larenz Tate.
Based on the critically acclaimed 1982 novel of the same name by the late Gloria Naylor, it centers around the lives of eight African American women living in a dead-end urban project called Brewster Place.
At the hands of a black woman, Naylor thoughtfully and endearingly showed the nuances of black women — beauty, complexity, tenderness, angst, vulnerability all twisted together. Naylor, who passed away in 2016 at 66, called the story her “love letter” to the black women in her life including her mother who she credits for encouraging her to write. In her National Book Award acceptance speech in 1983, saying, “I wrote that book as a tribute to her and other black women, who, in spite of the very limited personal circumstances, somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.” That spirit translated on the screen.
The mini-series would receive accolades such as the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special, and Outstanding Drama Series, and the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding TV Movie or Limited Series. It was also nominated for a Primetime Emmys in 1989 for Outstanding Mini-Series and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Drama for Paula Kelly’s performance as Theresa.
The layered stories to me are reminiscent of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf,” or the sisterhood of “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. Black women are broadly painted in a stereotypical generalization that isn’t true to us collectively and overlooks the nuances.
Mattie Michael — played by Winfrey — who ventures to Brewster Place is quiet, visibly worn, and weary of the world. Raised on a farm by her parents, she was seduced and impregnated by a slick-talking womanizer much to the offense of her father — played by the late Paul Winfield — pushes to learn the man’s identity. He goes as far as to hit her with a broom until her motherly fiercely holds him off with a shotgun.
Struggling as a single mother after she moves away from home, her paths cross with an older black woman Miss Eva who offers Mattie and her son Basil a place to live. She would often scold Mattie for not finding a companion and being solely wrapped into her son, who grows into an immature and irresponsible young man.
Ciel’s (Whitfield) story was heartbreaking as she had an unshaken devotion to her disgruntled husband who comes in and out of her and their infant daughter Serena’s lives. She even goes as far as to abort their second baby after his cruel remarks of them being a burden on him tolerating his toxic masculinity and gaslighting. Ciel’s story struck me the most because of the quintessential learned behavior of quietly suffering, sacrificing, and overextending herself to please an unsufferable rolling stone. Her later falling into a deep depression after the accidental death of her daughter and her husband’s departure, Mattie loved and nurtured her out of her intention to simply let life swallow her whole and die.
On the other side of the caregiving and nurturing side of the black woman, Melanie who’s also known as “Kiswana” (Givens), and her mother Mrs. Brown (Tyson) wrestle with the definition of what it means to be black and the internalized shame of being black or the longing to embrace it. Then there’s Mattie’s friend Etta (Harry), wide-eyed, free-spirited who travels to where her heart desire to now wanting companionship with a man endures feeling exploited and disposed of even from a tryst with a local pastor.
Then there’s the single mother of six kids — who are all rowdy with no direction from her — who we see feels a tenderness towards newborn babies as she recalls being a little girl cradling a baby doll she’d get each year from her parents. Kiswana is the only one who tries to connect with her and shows her a different way, even something as simple as inviting her and the children to a stage play directed by her boyfriend. One tender moment that made her see the extent of her verbal abuse is when one of her sons sees a man in a donkey costume and asks, “Mama, am I gonna look like that? Is that what a dumbass looks like when it grows up?”
The most compelling of all was the lesbian couple Lorraine (McKee) and Theresa “Tee” (Kelly) who moved into Brewster Place much to the disgust of the neighborhood town crier Miss Sophia (Cole) who stole the show with her memorable line taunting Lorraine: “I saw ya! I saw ya! I saw ya!”
There’s always been a taboo around sexual orientation in the black community due to religious beliefs that speak again homosexuality. Naylor has an intimate look into the world of the couple. It tackled the homophobia with Sophia leading the prejudice parade even going as far as humiliating her and putting her in danger of ridicule and assault. Most importantly what it means to be black and gay in the world — a perspective that the two women disagree about.
Lorraine proves to be more sensitive over her sexuality as it was the cause of her family disowning her and losing a previous teaching job in Detroit. Her notable “beige bra and oatmeal” speech is one of the most stand-out performances and a personal favorite of mine.
“There’s only been two things that have been constant Tee in my life since I was 16. That is beige bras and oatmeal. The day before I first fell in love with a woman, I got up in the morning, I had oatmeal for breakfast, I put on my beige bra and I went to school. The day after I fell in love with that woman, I got up in the morning, I had oatmeal, put on my beige bra and went to school. I wasn’t any different before that happened or after that happened Tee.”
Thirty years later, this story continues to resonate with those who first watched it or discovered it years later as I did or may discover it now and are enchanted. The series was humble yet poignant about the weight black women carry which can and does break us, the compassion to lift up one another up, and was a reflection of ourselves.
I always think of that scene with Mattie when her weariness turned into anger as she picks up a metal bar and hits the brick wall separately from Brewster Place from the rest of the neighborhood. Tired and taking her anguish out on what closes her and everyone else in as residents join her one by one. Smashing, removing bricks, undeterred by the sound of police sirens and the downpour of rain until they can see through the other side. That image always sticks with me. My people…down but not out.