Alex Haley’s Queen (1993)

Try though they may, the miniseries powers-that-be could not milk the Alex Haley machine dry.  After “Roots” came “Roots: The Next Generation” and then that odd little Christmas movie.  But, that was all just one branch of his family.  “Alex Haley’s Queen” (the official title, as to separate it from “Queenie,” which is another miniseries completely, or even “Halle Berry’s Queen,” which it no doubt would have been called if she had done this later in her career–as late as 1993, we still had authors who were stars, especially a beloved one recently deceased) runs up the tree to grab the branch of his paternal grandmother. 

This is a prestige miniseries very late in the genre’s arc, right near the end, almost the last of its kind.  There would be romance and adventure miniseries peppering the 1990s, but “War and Remembrance” had pretty much not only killed the historical miniseries, but then kicked around the corpse for a few extra hours.  World War II had been done ad nauseum and with the growth of cable, the miniseries was no longer a guaranteed event.  Unless, of course, someone went way back in the miniseries history and pulled up Alex Haley.  He had written other books after “Roots” and “Roots” still held a special place in the collective hearts of America.  So, “Roots” begot “Alex Haley’s Queen” nearly a decade and a half later.  The cast list is impressive.  Everyone seems to have wanted in on this one.  If there was another “Roots” in the making, who would say no?

“Alex Haley’s Queen” is certainly no “Roots.”  The story is nowhere near as potent, interesting or epic.  It’s narrowed by a few generations (and a lot of hours) and tells the story of Haley’s grandmother Queen from her birth soon before the Civil War and long after.  This is not the story of slavery, though that dominates the first third of the movie.  This is the story of a half white-half black woman trying to struggle through the racial minefields of the last third of the 19th Century.  It’s lacks the freshness of the “Roots” saga, and it’s a story told many times by many different people.  It also falls apart completely in the final 45 minutes or so, but it’s strong enough up until then to withstand too much criticism. 

However, it’s unfair to compare anything to “Roots,” because “Roots” is sui generis, the apex of the genre.  Looking at “Alex Haley’s Queen” for its own merits, one will find plenty.  All of those stars actually give heartfelt performances and the writing is excellent (except when it turns preachy, because the story itself is strong enough that we don’t need to be hit over the head with it).  In the central role, there isn’t a trauma Halle Berry doesn’t endure, but she is forced to play Queen as a bit too innocent, which at times makes her seem less a character than a symbol.  She does fine work, no doubt about it, but the standouts tend to be the supporting cast members, from a surprisingly touching Ann-Margaret to a strong Lorraine Toussaint and, most notably, Tim Daly in his finest television performance.  Patricia Clarkson and Frances Conroy, early in their careers also, are damn fine villains. 

A bunch of black women are doing the laundry in a river where three white men want to bathe, scaring the women out by shooting above their heads.  The women are saved by James Jackson (Tim Daly), who is compassionate to his slaves.  “We don’t make sport with our slaves…I will make you sorry if you ever bother one of our slaves again,” he says bravely before having to fight the other three, and losing badly.  “That’s how it is with nigger lovers,” the horrible men cackle as Tim hops up, all black and blue.  His own slave, Cap’n Jack (Paul Winfield) didn’t do anything to help his master, but even a kindly slave owners is still a slave owner. 

James’ favorite slave is Easter (Jasmine Guy), the slave who tried to protect the women working before James arrived.  “Whatever would I do without you?” James asks Easter as she applies salve to his body.  He’s about the only one in his family who has that attitude.  His father, James Jackson Sr. (Martin Sheen), quips that whites are the last to know any local gossip and his mother, Sally (Ann-Margaret) and her friend Mrs. Perkins (Charlotte Moore) laugh dutifully at said quip.  Mrs. Perkins is only around because it’s expected that her daughter Lizzie (Patricia Clarkson) will marry James.  Lizzie calls Easter horrible names and slaps her when Easter isn’t dainty enough with her shawl.  We know that marriage won’t happen!

There’s a lot of ado because of an approaching grand marriage.  Everyone is expected to go and Cap’n Jack asks James Sr. if his daughter Easter can go, and James Sr. says she can tend to the ladies.  He hands Cap’n Jack the invitation to read and Cap’n Jack dryly notes, “I can’t read.  You know it ain’t legal,” but both know he reads very well.  James Sr. then gives his son a list of “eligible heiresses,” with Lizzie at the top of the list, but James Jr. is uninterested in her.  He says he doesn’t love her, which causes James Sr. to launch into a story about how he didn’t love Sally when he married her, but he came to (which has her smiling listening at the door).  When James tells Easter she can go to the wedding, they fall in a heap of laughter and laundry like any two young no-doubt-soon-to-be-lovers.

As everyone congregates for the wedding, there are two receiving lines, one for the whites and one for the blacks.  The camera pans out wide to show how long both lines are and how well the whites have dressed their slaves.  Naturally, at the wedding, the two colors are not allowed to mix, but at the party, they actually do.  Kind of.  Both colors are on the floor at the same time, but they stay completely with colors of the same, until Easter by accident gets tangled with a white man.  “Does anyone own this girl?” he barks.  James wants to claim her, but instead has Easter and Cap’n Jack follow him outside.  He wants to console her, but Lizzie comes and asks for the next dance.

James Sr. is dying.  He calls Cap’n Jack to him and gives him his freedom, having promised it to him years before.  Cap’n Jack refuses and James is baffled, but Cap’n Jack reminds him of a time he asked for his freedom to marry his love and James kept him and sold the woman.  “What would I do, where would I go?” Cap’n James says, but not because he feels any devotion to the family.  In fact, he tells James honestly that he’s staying only so that every time James looks at him, he’ll remember how he broke his promise and messed up his life.  The distinction is clear: there is no distinction.  A man who owns slaves is a bad man, no matter what is in his heart.  James basically confesses as much to Sally, but it’s too late.

Hunky James Jr. is swimming naked when Easter sits to watch.  They argue about Lizzie again.  “You got the fever for her,” Easter says, before running off with his clothes.  She wants James to promise to visit more often and she’ll give him his clothes back, but Cap’n Jack saves the day to bring James Jr. to his dying father.  The old man dies holding onto Cap’n Jack’s hand and no other. 

For succor, James goes to Easter’s cabin.  Besides being his true friend, this particular night she looks awfully fetching in her nightgown and hair down.  They are soon kissing and making love in front of the fire.  It’s a tender love scene, not the kind of master-slave union we’ve read about so often that comes from horny white men doing what they believed was their right to do.  This is real passion, real emotion.  The scene is handled in a way too soapy fashion with slow motion and barely lit limbs moving around each other, but it’s important to show how real the love is. 

“Love will come later.  Duty must come first,” Sally tells her son in yet another attempt to get him to marry Lizzie once and for all.  He agrees, but later that night, gazing at the stars with Easter, he finds out she’s pregnant.  He’s so sweet, he’s concerned about the pain of labor as his first reaction.  Nine months later, she indeed feels that pain as she gives birth to a daughter.  On the very night James proposes to Lizzie.  He has to do the right thing and marry a white woman, no matter what he’s done with a black one.

Cap’n Jack knows just what he’s doing when he interrupts dinner, where the topic is, of course, miscegenation, to announce that a slave child has just been born and “Easter is doing just fine.”  Lizzie figures out what it all means and refuses to marry James, but her mother convinces her otherwise.  Sally goes to visit the new baby and tells James that, “she won’t have any easy life.  She looks as white as you or I,” giving him the family book.  James enters Easter’s name in the book as the mother, but leaves the father column blank.  He then names the child Queen.  He goes to visit Queen, proudly holding her and inquiring about the labor while holding Easter’s hand, announcing he’s proposed to Lizzie.  He’s a product of his time, no matter how good his intentions.

At the wedding, Queen is being cooed over by everyone, including Sally, but only because she’ll make a good lady’s maid.  James is forced to endure a conversation with his father-in-law about the issue of abolition.  We’ll table that for now, but don’t worry, we’ll be back.

Queen grows up to become Raven-Symone.  Cap’n Jack teaches her to read and makes up stories about her father, but Easter just wants her to knows she’s nothing but a slave.  “You go on and dream.  You let that child be,” Easter tells her father when he starts talking about the end of slavery.  James looks out for her from afar.  He’s there when the black children taunt her for being white and learning to read, and even gives her a few books.  When Lizzie becomes pregnant, he decides Queen should be the child’s slave.  Easter is no happier about it than Sally or Lizzie.  He feels it will give Queen a better life, but no one else is convinced.  Lizzie is so mad about it that when Easter shows up with Queen, she not only barks that they should have used the back door, but since Queen is going to be raised right (aka white), “when you see her, keep your distance.  I don’t want her learning the Negro ways.”  Ouch!  She joins the Miniseries Evil Hall of Fame with that one! 

Queen (now Halle Berry) does grow up with advantages, though always a few feet behind her half-sister Jane (Jane Krakowski).  Time has done nothing to dim Lizzie’s hatred for Queen.  On the eve of the Civil War, Jane and Queen are accosted by soldiers.  Jane likes the flirtation, but when one grabs and kisses Queen, Jane steps in.  “How dare you kiss my slave,” she says and the soldier is horrified because he had no idea she was anything but white.  Though Jane seems to enjoy having a constant companion, she too has proper Southern lines drawn into her subconscious.  “You’re just an itty bitty raggedy slave, who’s gonna marry you?” she chirps when they discuss what they want in a potential husband.  And Queen has to sleep in a pull-out bed at the foot of Jane’s enormous four-poster. 

After a very weird encounter with Sally (which serves no purpose but to give Ann-Margaret a scene to sink her teeth into), Queen rushes to Easter to ask about her father, the white side of her, but Easter won’t say anything.  James goes off to fight in the war, the oldest soldier to enlist, I would think.  The women of the homestead are upset, but he tells Queen to take care of them.  “Pray for him, Queen, he’s your pappy,” Easter FINALLY reveals. 

Sally summons the slaves to tell them that slavery is a good thing.  The slaves get fed, clothed and buried by their masters, unlike their poor cousins up North.  This scene takes place outside around a fire, with only Sally believing any of the bunk she’s spewing, and music approaching “Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells as she prays and a montage of Civil War fighting and dying is shown.  It’s another bizarre Sally scene, and again, I can only assume no one wanted to waste Ann-Margaret. 

After James gets a brave post-battle scene, it’s back to the homestead where diphtheria is raging.  Jane has it and Lizzie is beside herself.  She rages at Easter, slapping her and threatening to sell her.  “Get the overseer,” she says, but things have gotten so bad, he’s gone too.  The house slaves have to work in the field, even faithful Parson Dick (Ossie Davis).  Sally comes rushing over with a letter and her eyesight is too bad to read (the Civil War lasted only four years, but the characters here seem to age about 20).  She begs Queen to read it, as opposed to Lizzie.  “You think I want her knowin’ my business?” she says.  Queen demures, saying it’s against the law for her to read.  “What’s it matter now?  Who’s gonna whip you for it now?” Sally responds, at least somewhat in touch with the changed world. 

The letter is from James, saying he’s coming home.  She’s jubilant in telling Easter, but Easter has a cough which assures us she’ll be dead soon (people in miniseries don’t ever simply get a cold).  Sally says she’ll make dinner, but can’t even husk corn.  “What you gonna do, go out in the field like some Negra woman pickin’ cotton?  None of us would be here if it wasn’t for you.  Now it’s your time to rest,” Easter tells her.  Somewhere along the line Sally has become a sympathetic character, which is fine because it gives Ann-Margaret some acting opportunities, but it’s rather unexpected. 

Queen has Lizzie working in the fields when the old overseer’s wife (a howling Linda Hart, having a blast) stops by, horrified that anyone is listening to a slave!  But, that’s when James arrives home, to find out his daughter Jane has died.  It’s also the exact time Sally calls for Queen because Easter is dying.  By the time James gets to Easter’s cabin, she is gone.  Sally takes Queen from the shack so James can have a last moment with, “my love.” 

We keep up with everything that happens when Queen talks to her mother’s grave.  James shows up while she’s doing so and apologizes that Queen has to work so hard because he’s so sick.  “We love you,” she says honestly.  He says he wants to go back to war, and once again the women have to bid him goodbye.  Sally, Lizzie and Mrs. Henderson sing hymns while tearing up linens to re-use, trying not to listen to the bombs so close that they break the dishes in the cupboard.  “Hallelujah,” shouts Parson Dick and breaks more.  The Yankees show up at the ruined manor to requisition food and cotton.  Sally says she will not fight them.  “You will not harm us, but you will bankrupt us?” she asks.  A tough buzzard, she wants to watch as they destroy her only means of income.  “How would you have us live now?” she asks after the soldiers dynamite everything.  “I lost two brothers to Johnny Reb. I don’t care how you live…or if you live,” he says.  His men take all the livestock and then the soldiers manhandle Queen.  Cap’n Jack tries to stop them and is beaten nearly to death for his trouble.  James has an arm amputated.  No one is doing well in this monstrous war. 

Super-sympathetic Sally comes to encourage Cap’n Jack not to give up on living and once again gives him the freedom papers her husband had drawn up.  They even discuss how the two of them conspired to get Sally married to James Sr., a much-needed laugh in their drab existence.  He begs Sally not to ever let Queen be sold.  She vows never to do so, but Sally tells him all the slaves are about to be free anyway.  With that happy realization, he dies. 

Parson Dick bolts the place, but Queen refuses to go.  “This my home,” she tells both him and Sally when they each try to get her to go to a better place.  Sally even tries a bit of tough love, telling her they are not her family, never to think of James as her father and to leave, to go with her own people.  Queen is left at her mother’s grave to cry and wonder what she should do as the first part ends.

James and Mr. Henderson make it home from the war, a lot worse for the wear.  James is missing an arm.  Not much better are the women at the plantation.  Queen has made tea out of acorns for Lizzie and Sally, who have only a few sticks of furniture at home by the time James gets there.  James apologizes to his mother when he sees her in a very tender moment, but she’s only glad he’s home.  Lizzie is equally thrilled, but James ignores Queen.  A few of the fleeing freed blacks offer to take her with them, but she stays. 

James tries to apologize to Queen as well, and offers to pay her, but she says no.  He has to.  “Slavery is illegal now,” he notes sadly.  James sells land for a bit of money, but he’s going to need more than a little: Lizzie is pregnant again.  Not meaning to be obtuse, but appearing so, James hopes it’s a girl to replace Jane, because the house feels empty without a little girl.  Queen isn’t happy about that. 

At Henderson’s store, Mrs. Henderson is nasty as hell to Queen, giving her less feed than she ordered, charging more, and talking about her sass.  The men there make it even worse, but Queen gallops away (without the feed), though the men are just a hair behind her.  She luckily falls off her horse and is able to evade the men.  However, when she doesn’t come home on time, James is worried about where she is.  His moments of ignorance and moments of care are a nice dichotomy and make him quite an interesting character.  Lizzie is not so tolerant.  She says she hopes Queen is gone for good because she knows he loves Queen more than her.  “I had to cook dinner last night!” Lizzie snarls when Queen comes home the next day, looking haggard and obviously in trouble.  Lizzie has forgotten Queen is no longer a slave.  “So ungrateful,” Lizzie snaps when Queen announces she’s leaving, “after all we’ve done for you!”  “You ain’t never done nothin’ for me!”

Queen goes to the graves to say goodbye, with Sally upset, but honest.  “It ain’t enough to be nearly white.  Even a little drop of black blood is enough,” she tells Queen, letting her know how the world will view her.  All she can give her is a handkerchief, the only thing of beauty she has left.  “I’ll miss you,” Sally says sadly as Queen wraps her arms around Sally’s legs one last time.

On her way down the dirt road from the house, Queen encounters James, who has been searching all night for her.  “Are you sure you want to go?” he asks her.  He says he will miss her, his eyes just avoiding hers as he does so, and tells her to write to them.  Their father-daughter love is not something they can discuss, so James only says, “remember, there is God in everyone” as a parting tenderness. 

Getting onto the coach for Charleston, an elderly woman thinks she’s completely white (Halle is light-skinned, but wearing a huge amount of pancake make-up that is not blended well below her chin).  “Queen, you is a white girl now,” she beams when the woman is excited to have a nice white travel companion.  But, not everyone is so blind to her color.  She applies for a job doing menial work and the woman hisses that she knows she’s black.  Queen is forced to steal food just to eat.  She joins the line in a soup kitchen, but the man looking at everyone thinks she’s white, but picks out a girl a few behind her with black blood and tosses her out.

At the soup kitchen, Queen meets Alice (Lonette McKee, a superb actress and two-time Julie in “Show Boat,” so she knows her way around these “passing” roles), who is also assumed white by everyone.  She takes Queen under her wing and teaches her how to pass.  Frustrated Queen says, “I’m just a mistake.”  “You ain’t a mistake, but you do smell bad,” she jokes and gives Queen a relaxing bath, treating her more kindly than anyone else has.  Alice admits to sleeping with white men for money, but Queen says she could never do it because she’s not pretty.  Alice holds up a mirror and tells Queen how beautiful she is.

Alice dolls up Queen and takes her to an all-white dance.  She immediately picked by a hunk for a dance and then back at Alice’s, admits to having a wonderful time.  Alice spent her time with George (Dan Biggers), but Queen is still not up for the whole kept woman thing.  Alice says George has a job for her, not sex, but working in a flower shop.  That’s where she meets Digby (Victor Garber), who buys a rose and then gives it to her. 

Digby takes a liking to Queen, who says she’s the daughter of a Civil War veteran (as is Digby) and then tells a few lies so he doesn’t learn the truth, though Alice says, “every moment you with him, you livin’ a lie…he gonna catch you!”  She also cautions Queen not to fall in love, “because there’s dangers for women like us.”

Her new suitor says all the right things.  He has done some checking up on her and thinks she’s the daughter of a poor Alabama family, saying everyone is different after the war and he then proposes!  Yes, after what seems to be only three meetings.  A fight between two black men in the street leads to one man being pushed against Digby, who beats the man and hurts epithets.  Alice is furious.  “What in the world is he going to say when you have babies and a little pickininny pops out…You get out of this as fast as you can!” she berates her, worried that all of them will be ruined should Digby find out the truth. 

Resolute in telling Digby the truth, Queen tries, but before she can, Digby tells her, “I’ve written to your father” and she passes out.  When she wakes up, he gives her laudanum.  “It’s like floatin’ on a fluffy pink cloud,” he says, kissing her.  He unbuttons her blouse and she tries her best to fight him.  “I’m nigra!” she finally says, in order to stop her.  “Slut!” he replies and slaps her.  That’s the least of it.  He punches her and then rapes her, with the scary line, “you’ll get what cheap nigra bitches deserve!”  He’s now taken over from Lizzie as the movie’s most evil character.

She wanders home and Alice is not at all sympathetic.  Someone has already thrown a brick through the window.  “You’re not special, we’ve all been raped,” Alice roars as she packs Queen’s clothes and tosses her out.  She doesn’t want to lose her place with George or her passing lifestyle. 

The only place Queen can go is to the outskirts of town where the poor blacks live.  But they aren’t any friendlier.  “You hungry?” the woman at the pot says, seemingly helpful.  “Take that, white bitch,” she then says hurling the food at her.  Queen is hungry, so she eats it off the ground.  She also arrives just in time for the Klan to arrive and burn all the homes, killing at least one man in the process (not to mention in slow motion). 

Just to make sure she goes through EVERYTHING bad that can happen to a human at one time, she falls into a mud pile.  Slavery, beatings, rape, fire, famine and mud.  Everything but a plague of locusts follows this poor girl.

Tired and ready to die, she wanders into a black church in the middle of a fiery sermon, screaming “I nigra” like a woman possessed.  Joyce (Lorraine Toussaint) gets her a job working for two spinsters (Sada Thompson and Elizabeth Wilson).  Quoting the Bible, they promise her fair work and pay, and comment on her excellent teeth.  They are true Bible thumpers, doing little else but singing hymns with angelic smiles plastered on their faces.  They make sure she goes to church, though they condemn the “African ritual” of her church, telling her to attend with them instead. 

Now that life has gone from the lowest of the lowest to even tolerable, it’s about time our Queen met a man!  That would be Davis (Dennis Haysbert), who comes into the garden one day and offers his services.  “I big and I black.  If I come knockin’ on your door, would you have talked to me?” he asks one spinster when she wonders why he just presumed and came into the garden.  He offers a free afternoon and if she likes his work, she can hire him.  She agrees.  “I wonder, does he know he has a friend in Jesus,” she asks Queen, in a line that begs for laughter among the all-too serious surroundings.  Queen is interested too, but doesn’t realize it.  She feeds him a superb dinner, peppering him with questions about his whip marks.  He admits he was a handful, but then launches into a speech about “taking charge of his life” and never having to live under a white man’s rule again.  I hate to say it, but that sort of thing is better handled through action in this story than out-and-out dialogue, which sounds like a textbook.  The miniseries is so sturdy in the way it’s written, so this is a rare lapse, and probably an inevitable one.  I suppose there has to be a degree of preaching. 

Davis takes a break one afternoon for a massage from Queen, who asks against about his whip marks, and since she was never whipped, he launches back into a quiet tirade about hate.  “It’s all there is,” he says when Queen tells him not to hate.  What do you think she responds?  “No, there’s love.”  And then there is love.  The kind that happens in a bed with soft candles and even netting to make it all soft and gauzy.  This is the first time Queen has had consensual sex and she’s talking about having his child in afterglow.  He’s not thrilled with the idea of having children and she says he doesn’t have to marry her if she has one.  She lacks self-esteem and he lacks humanity, having had it beaten out of him.  This is not a relationship fated to last long.  When he gets preachy again, she turns away from him in bed, while the camera pulls up to the ceiling to show them naked through the gauze. 

Caught stealing a biscuit, the spinsters literally “tsk tsk” her and send her to her room for violating the Eighth Commandment.  They don’t realize she’s eating for two.  She does, for she’s already started knitting baby clothes.  Joyce forces Queen to tell Davis, who says he’ll try to love Queen.  “If’n you don’t love this girl and cherish her…I’ll fix it so you don’t give no poor gal no baby again.  You know I will,” Joyce says, in no uncertain terms.  “Now, you can go to him,” she instructs Queen. 

She leaves the spinsters because she and Davis have agreed to meet and go away together.  Joyce wishes her the best and Queen heads over to the train station.  But, alas, no Davis.  He never shows.  Life was nudging Queen a bit too much toward actual happiness for everything to work according to her romantic notions.  Another man has disappointed her. 

Thinking it’s the only option, Joyce takes Queen to get an adoption, but Queen changes her mind and they return to the spinsters.  “Queen is lost.  All the prayers in Christendom couldn’t save her now,” Spinster Sada chides, but says it’s their duty to take care of the baby, and thus the mother.  Joyce says no and tries to take her away, but the spinsters point out that in her condition, she can’t really go anywhere else.  They banish Joyce from the house and set up Queen, telling her to “remember your prayers tonight!”  It ain’t a great situation, but it’s better than nothing.  “Don’t let them two old dragons be too hard on you,” she says before going to sleep. 

Queen still has to do chores, but give her some slack the more pregnant she gets.  When Spinster Sada asks her what it feels like, she has a sweet speech about how much she already loves the child and how devoted she will be to it.  Spinster Sada says both she and Spinster Elizabeth are jealous as they have never found love and thus never had children.  “We spend our lives trying to increase God’s family, not ours, but I would give anything in the world to know what it feels like, really feels like, in my heart,” Spinster Sada attests.

Then it’s birthing time.  It’s a boy!  Both spinsters were hoping for that.  They won’t let her hold him at first, saying “he’s not very dark, he’ll get lighter.”  She wants to name him for his father, but the spinsters have him baptized as Abner.  The ladies are a little too into the baby, even asking Queen to breastfeed in front of them because they like to watch anything related to the baby.  The sight of Sada Thompson singing a hymn as Halle Berry nurses and rolls her eyes is a welcome comedic moment. 

Late one night, the ladies try to take Abner to their room, thinking it’s better, “the promise of salvation.”  She screams at them that they want him because they are old and dried up, and she wins, keeping the baby for the moment.  “You will regret this,” she’s told as she grabs the cradle.  Queen goes off to her preacher, who tells her the truth, that since the women are white and she’s black.  It’s a hard thing to hear, but she knows it’s true.  When she finds the spinsters with a preacher discussing putting him up for foster care through the church, she takes the baby and plans to run.  She better do it quickly, because the preacher is telling the spinsters to have her committed to an asylum.  Queen takes Abner in the middle of the night and leaves, promising a better life.  Thus ends the second part of the story.

Ever-resilient, Queen finds her way to a tavern where Mrs. Benson (Frances Conroy) is eating alone.  The woman running the joint tries to make Queen sit in the back, but Mrs. Benson invites Queen to join her.  She offers Queen a job as a wet nurse.  She has one who is “uppity and her milk is a little sour,” and she wants a replacement.  Before Queen agrees, she makes sure that Mrs. Benson isn’t a Jesus freak.  “I don’t believe you Negroes have souls,” Mrs. Benson says with a laugh.  Done, Queen is in.  Slur or no slur, she’ll take the job as long as the Lord isn’t hanging around. 

Mrs. Benson is prejudice in equality.  Not only does she find blacks to be without souls, but she will not spend money in a “Semitic” grocery store.  As she’s picking apart everyone along the street, Queen sees Davis giving a rabble-rousing speech in the town square to get the blacks to strike.  The white men in town arrest them, but the warrant is not signed and the judge releases them, knowing they technically have the same rights as whites.  The judge knows that, but the white men in town don’t and vow to bring him down.

Queen shows up at Davis’ house, hoping that she can get him to take responsibility for her and the child, and the only way he can stop the torrent of words and fists is to have sex with her.  “I’d ask you to stay, but it ain’t safe,” he tells Queen, because he’s a marked man.  With Queen at Davis’, Mrs. Benson has had to deal with her own crying baby all night and she’s not happy.  In a surprise move, she sends Queen to Davis’ to warn him that the Klan is coming to him.  That is until we see her holding Abner on her balcony and smiling as the Klansmen chase Queen unnoticed to Davis’, now knowing where he’s hiding out.

Queen returns to Mrs. Benson’s.  “Abner is doing the Lord’s work tonight,” Mrs. Benson tells her, but Queen doesn’t understand.  Ah, Mrs. Benson, now taking over from the last 25 people the title of the Most Evil Character, is a female member of the Klan (they didn’t do the dirty work) and she has given the Klan Abner to take to Davis’.  Now that’s wicked, truly repulsive.  As they hold the baby, they lynch and burn Davis.  Queen arrives in daylight to see his scorched body still hanging from the tree, with Abner in a box at his feet, still alive.  This segment nails American race relations, the whole history of it, right there.  It’s chilling. 

It’s time to hit the road again.  Queen seems a bit deadened to life now, having experienced every atrocious act that can be committed upon one person.  She gets on a ferry run by Alec Haley (Danny Glover), a very nice man with a son, Henry, hoping to head “north.”  Queen doesn’t disembark because she doesn’t have the money for the ride she’s taken.  She promises to pay him back and he jokes that of course, he just “doesn’t know how much interest to charge.”  She’s in no joking mood after what she’s been through.

He tracks Queen down to a maid job she does and she doesn’t give into his kindness.  She doesn’t understand it.  Everyone who at first seemed kind has always disappointed her.  The job is at Mr. Cherry’s (George Grizzard), another man who seems nice at first, even though he’s holding a Bible, which in her mind marks him as evil.  He admits to being “an abolitionist who kept slaves,” saying that after emancipation the slaves stayed on as employees.  At a dinner party at Mr. Cherry’s, Queen spills water on a white lady, who berates her.  Queen explodes, yelling at the woman and telling her she may have black blood in her as well.  One of her fellow employees tells her to lose the hate routine and let someone in with love.  Queen isn’t ready yet.

Dora (Madge Sinclair) finishes that harangue and follow it up with one aimed at Alec.  She insists, though he refuses, that he is indeed looking for a new wife and mother for his son.  A little matchmaking can’t hurt.  Abner runs off to Alec’s place and a frantic Queen finds him there on Alec’s knee telling him a “story written by a fine old man named Aesop.”  Rather than be grateful, she unleashes her temper on him.  For the umpteenth time, she says as soon as she has the money, she’ll be on her way.  Alec does a smart thing and offers her a second job running his house at night.  He watches her through the window with a smile and a laugh. 

Queen asks Mr. Cherry for Saturdays off so she can work the other job, but still expecting to be paid since she’s doing the same amount of work.  Mr. Cherry wants to be fair, to pay her only when she’s working.  Finally, Alec forces her to sit down and listen to him.  “If you think you can live in a glass case with that boy all your life, you’re a fool, woman,” he chides her.  It actually penetrates.  Perhaps she’s getting tired of carrying around so much hate.  She takes a seat in his dead wife’s rocking chair and this starts a conversation, a pleasant one, though a short one.  Hey, it’s a start.

Both Mr. Cherry and Dora are surprised to find Queen going about her chores while singing.  At Alec’s, she bonds with Henry, who doesn’t want to stay in school in order to earn money as a sharecropper.  Then comes this whopper out of Queen: “Instead of wakin’ up each morning saying ‘I hate it,’ why not wake up each morning and say, ‘I like it?'”  That’s a personality change so fast one wonders what the hell kind of pills she’s taking.  I know we’ve got only an hour to wrap this movie up, but damn, that was a quick transformation!  She’s now comfortable sitting on the porch and quips (yes, quips) that she will have to stay with him a long time to earn enough money ever to leave.  They hold hands.

Queen marries Alec, with Mr. Cherry to give her away.  It’s a lovely church wedding and they even jump the broom, and old slave custom that was used to signify marriage that the white people didn’t understand.  Queen gives birth to a son named Simon.  This baby is born with smiles and love. 

The years fly by and Simon’s teacher tells Queen that Simon should stay in school because he is smart, loves to learn and does not belong in the fields sharecropping.  He tells his mother he wants to stay in school and “maybe even go to college.”  She tries to get Alec to agree to let him stay in school, but he needs him on the farm.  She throws one of her girlish tantrums, though they have now started to use the age make-up on her, and Alec gives in.  Simon can go to school, but he has to work for the book money.  “Don’t you get no ideas about leaving,” she tells Abner.  She makes him promise never to leave her. 

Simon makes money in the oldest profession: selling lemonade by the roadside.  Two white boys come for some and a fight starts when they refuse to pay.  Queen drags Simon to the boy’s house to get the money for the lemonade and when he calls her a nigger, she slaps him and calls him trash.  Queen stands firm, though the boy’s mother defends her son.  Luckily, the father comes along and pays the money.  This episode seems to exist for Emmy-grabbing purposes (and to echo “Roots”).  Queen unleashes years of pent-up anger on the white woman, starting from her white father and going all the way up to the present, the money they are owed for the lemonade.  Simon manages to get her to come home, but something inside her has clearly broken.  “I scared,” she tells Alec.  “I scared of me.”  Obviously her happy pills have worn off.

Queen takes her sons to the plantation where she was born to show them where she grew up.  She arrives just as a funeral is taking place, the funeral of her father.  That’s a bit too sudsy, no?  The miniseries is falling apart in its last hour seemingly just to add time.  Queen shows her boys the grave of her mother, the house where she lived and then the big house.  Guess who is there?  Yup, the first Most Evil Character in the story, Lizzie, descending the stairs with a glass of wine in hand to tell Queen one more time that she doesn’t belong and never did. 

Simon graduates from school with the top honors ever in Savannah in a joyous ceremony with a band and dancing and all.  His teacher asks to speak to Queen alone, to tell her Simon deserves to go to college.  Queen is convinced, but Alec isn’t.  “We still think like slaves,” she tells her husband, telling him that the future is different from their life.  This would be Queen #2, the cranky-but-lovable personality, somewhere between Queen #1, the angry one and Queen #3, the strangely “scared” one who rocks in a chair oddly. 

Anyway, everyone thinks Simon should go to college.  Mr. Cherry thinks so and even Henry thinks so, because he’s no damn good as a farmer.  Finally, Alec agrees.  “I am sending you to normal school and you better do good,” he rails and then tells him to stay away from women.  Simon is given $50.  “Most fool thing I ever done,” he mutters to himself.  Queen is thrilled, but Abner isn’t.  He wants to go away too, but she’s holding onto him too tightly.  He wants to go up North, and she tells him he doesn’t know how to do anything and to put the thoughts out of his mind.  Just when he convinces Alec to let him go, Queen #3, the crazy one, blurts out the truth that Alec isn’t Abner’s father.  That upsets both men.  Alec rides away on his horse.

In a tizzy, Queen sets herself on fire accidentally.  She runs out of the house and is found by neighbors still trying to put the fire out.  I guess this is Queen #4, batshit crazy, the kind played as a drooling hag in most movies. 

In a completely unnecessary turn of events, Queen is committed to an asylum straight jacketed, water torture and all.  I’m not sure this is the place to go into the horrors of 19th Century mental health treatments, true story or not.  It’s certainly way too late in the movie for such a plot twist.  “I ain’t mad,” she tells Alec when he visits.  Honestly, the writing is so different in this section, and so sloppy, it’s as if it’s been written by someone new.

Queen summons Mr. Cherry for a visit, asking him for $50 so Abner can go away and live the life he wants.  He is glad to lend her the money and “as for paying it back, we’ll worry about that another time,” he says to her.  Now Queen #1, or maybe Queen #2 with a bit of #1, returns.  She insists on going home.  Why?  Leaving all the shrieking mad people in the hovel hell house?  “I ain’t that sick.  I got a few demons in me.  I don’t suppose they will ever go away, but I’m not a danger to anyone, except maybe me,” she says, which sounds pretty damn rational.  The doctor tries to reason with her, telling her it’s 50 miles and she can’t even tie her shoes, but she insists.  She wants to say goodbye to her sons, even if it means coming back.  Silently, the doctor bends down to tie her shoes.  Oh, for crying out loud! 

Alec comes to pick her up and she looks better.  They have done her hair and given her fresh clothes to wear.  And her shoes are tied, of course.  They have even scraped away some of the age make-up to make her look a bit more Halle Berry ravishing (not that much, but a bit more).  Queen gives Abner a parting e speech to beat the band, telling him he’s always loved and he can always come home. 

“I’ll just have to make do with you then,” she teases Alec and tells him the story of her early years as they sit on the porch rocking.  “Who’d have known that my prince on the white horse wouldn’t have no horse, but a ferry crossing the river?” she says to her smiling husband as grip hands again. 

For James, to learn his Haley authors properly.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

7 Comments to “Alex Haley’s Queen (1993)”

  1. Vanessa Jay 21 December 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    I really liked your review on Queen – it was hilarious but very informative. One of my all time favourite movies.

    • Bj Kirschner 21 December 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      Thank you very much! It is a wonderful miniseries overall. Even with Halle Berry, it will never get the attention of “Roots,” but I can’t think of too many American television events that can or should. On its own, it’s very strong and has a terrific cast.

      Keep reading, I’m getting to them all. I’m working on a very amusing trashy one as we speak!

      Happy Holidays!

      Bj

    • SAllister 10 February 2017 at 2:50 am #

      Your comments are inappropriate, sick, and disrespectful.

      • Bj Kirschner 10 February 2017 at 8:39 am #

        Once again, all opinions are welcome, but not when they are targeted like this. No one is arguing with history, no one is denying the racial horrors that have existed in this country (and still do). This site and my opinions are about these specific television productions, that’s all, no matter the subjects of the miniseries themselves. There are thousands of other sites where a discussion of those subjects is the whole purpose of their existence.

  2. survival preparedness 12 July 2014 at 5:35 am #

    Thanks for finally writing about > Alex Haley

  3. Rosie 19 October 2016 at 10:38 am #

    What the fuck? What kind of review is this? The name of the production is “QUEEN”. It’s basically about the life of one woman – from the circumstances of her conception to when she was in her forties or fifties, when she was committed to an assylum. Her time in the assylum was a culmination of all she had endured. You couldn’t figure that out? Or the fact that this production was mainly about one person and NOT about several generations of a family?

    • Bj Kirschner 12 November 2016 at 1:03 pm #

      Yes, I can figure that out, thank you. Luckily, this is my site for my opinions. Though I welcome everybody’s input, I do insist that it be respectful.


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