The Women of Brewster Place (1989)

“The Women of Brewster Place” is one of those when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people-and-happen-and-happen-and-happen sagas, but this one tops ’em all because it doesn’t pick just one social inequity with which to challenge our minds; it uses them all!  Racism?  Check.  Sexism?  Check.  Ageism?  Check?  Gender inequality?  Check (both hetero- and homosexual).  Impressively, it crunches them all together into a confined sense of space and time.  “Centennial” has nearly all of the above as plot issues, but is spread out over 20+ hours and 100+ years!

“How, Bj,” you say, “how can all of this be crunched into a two-night miniseries?  It’s not possible!”  Oh, friends, it’s possible because helming the whole thing is (trumpets blaring) Oprah Winfrey.  She’s one of the producers and its star, in that time when she thought herself an actress.  She’s a long way from “The Color Purple,” where she actually proved her mettle, and thankfully a long way from “Beloved” where she destroyed that mettle.  If Oprah can squeeze social injustice into one hour of chat, I suppose it’s not impossible to tuck all of Gloria Naylor’s book into four hours for us.

In fact, “The Women of Brewster Place” was so critically acclaimed and so wildly successful with viewers that it was turned into a weekly TV series, starring Oprah Winfrey.  But, after less than half a dozen episodes, the show was canned and it’s since been erased from history (as I might be now for bringing it up).  Left standing is “The Women of Brewster Place,” the miniseries, which is tough to actually review smoothly because it’s at once outstanding and utterly grating.  When the actresses are playing real and honest, the thing soars.  When they dip into the pathos side of things, they all but reach through the screen and beat the tears out of the viewer.  There’s only so much crying I’m willing to do for one miniseries and this one would have to be 10 times as long to merit all it thinks it deserves.

The narration is, naturally, by Oprah, playing a Tennessee woman living in a cul-de-sac slum, cut off from everything by a brick wall.  Oprah tells us just a tad, but then hits us with the main point of the miniseries, which will be obvious all on its own: “When we women came together, there was a power inside us we never felt before.”

She arrives on the block as an old woman, taking an apartment with a lovely view of the wall.  As she looks at her new digs, she remembers the past, back in the country, where she’s feeding chickens and being pestered by Clark Johnson, who wants to spend some special time with her.  Oprah tells him he curses too much and he says “you and your ‘ain’t'” knocking her Christian values in favor of easier hedonism.  “All the women I know, they don’t remember nothing but the good times they had with me,” and that is supposed to keep them happy in more miserable times.  Clark is especially turned on by Oprah telling the story of her family’s last name, one that goes back to slavery.  He gets what he wants (after she finishes her story).

But it only takes one time to get pregnant, and that’s exacty what happens.  Oprah’s father, Paul Winfield, is so furious he refuses to speak at all, but her mother, Mary Alice, is more understanding.  She tells her daughter that having a baby is not wrong, but “the sin is in the fornicating and I done forgave you for that a long time ago.”  After Mary’s touching speech, Paul gets one too, lest we go 53 seconds with some preaching.  He actually forgives her too, but only because he thinks a former beau is responsible, but she tells him the father is someone different and he goes ballistic.  “Tell me of I’m gonna beat it out of you,” which he does with fists and a broom.  Mary rushes out with a shotgun and proclaims, “you touch my child again and I’ll meet your soul in hell.”  Now it’s Paul’s turn to cry, saying “I had such hopes for that girl.”

Goodbye country living, the unmarried pregnant girl is off on a Greyhound bus.  Oprah lives in a boarding house where she gives birth with the support of her friend Jackee Harry, but that support is about to be yanked out from under her too.  Jackee is moving to New York City.  “They got this place called Harlem with nothing but wall to wall colored doctors and businessmen,” she rambles and then invites Oprah to come with her, but the latter is skeptical and decides to stay put with her baby.

Happy for about five minutes, she awakes to find a rat in her bed, having just finished off the baby’s bottle.  She has to leave that boarding house, but it’s hard to get new digs.  Eccentric old lady Barbara Montgomery finally takes them in, offering her food and her house.  As she coos over “that pretty red thing ” (the baby) and tells stories of her five husbands, she manages to tell Oprah she won’t charge her for living there.  She’s lonely, since she has only her young granddaughter for company.

The years go by and Barbara is concerned that Oprah does not have a man.  “I have my hands full raising my son,” she protests when Barbara asks her for the umpteenth time why she doesn’t date.  The argument expands to include Barbara chastizing Oprah for letting her son sleep in bed with her.  Oprah claims that he’s afraid of the dark.  They have had this argument for years, but this is the last time because Barbara dies.  Her granddaughter is taken by the girl’s father, but Oprah promises her son no one will take him away, her plan being to stay in the house and give her son a good life.

Indeed he has one, becoming grown-up Eugene Lee over a cup of coffee.  The child actors are now banished and the aging make-up and graying wigs are hauled out for Oprah.  Having fallen asleep reading the Bible, Oprah is awoken by a phone call from Eugene saying he’s in jail for having killed a man.  She insists on mortgaging the paid-for house so Eugene doesn’t have to sit in prison until the trial.  Ever naive, Oprah tells Eugene he won’t be found guilty because it was an accident and the jury will see the evidence of that, but Eugene knows better.  “A jury? That jury’s gonna be so white, they gonna think we just had a snowfall,” Eugene reminds her, summing up Southern justice quite nicely.

You know what happens next.  Let’s not even waste time playing the guessing game.  After a speech like that, the kid is history, cutting and running.  By this point, with her hair completely gray, it’s time for Oprah to put on her ratty fur coat, grab her suitcase and a little plant (this reference to “A Raisin in the Sun” is noticeable, except when Mama Younger took her houseplant, she was moving from the slum to a house, not the reverse like Oprah is doing) and dispense with the flashback.

She is pulled from remembering by Lynn Whitfield, the little girl she helped raised, now all grown up.  Lynn knows Oprah is miserable in the city, now sounding like Barbara Montgomery as she clucks over Lynn’s fatherless child, and tries to make Oprah as comfortable as possible.  Brewster Place is filled with unique characters, and two of them argue constantly outside Oprah’s door.  There’s blue-haired senior Olivia Cole, direct from every other miniseries, and Phyllis Stickney, a young mother of a brood of loud brats.  Pre-feminism feminist rich girl Robin Givens is moving in with her boyfriend and nervous about it.  Into the squalor of the neighborhood sweeps Jackee in a giant car, wearing a fur-trimmed suit and feathers in her hair, having left her man and taken his car as a method of escape.  Her problem is that she’s never had a “regular job,” going from man to man as a kept woman, and right now, she has no prospects in that department.  Oprah invites her to church to meet a nice man, though Jackee wonders why Oprah is still single with all of her church-going.  “Child, I done banked those fires long ago,” she snaps back.

Brewster Place is a haven for crime, with Glenn Plummer the drug-pushing mastermind of it all.  The women hate him and his gang, but the police won’t even listen to their complaints.  Robin wants to start a tenant’s association, but she doesn’t get too far before spotting one of Phyllis’ kids eating out of the garbage.  Hauling him to his TV-loving mother, who moans, “now I’m gonna miss Rachel coming out of her coma,” Robin is shocked to hear that Phyllis knows her kid is a dumpster diver and does it to find sweets that she won’t allow her kids.  In fact, she’s indignant that Robin has even hinted that her kids aren’t well-fed.  “I got four books of food stamps,” she says proudly!  When she tells boyfriend Leon about it, he reminds her that life in the ghetto is not like anything she’s known.  “These people have had the life beaten out of them for years and you can’t change that overnight,” he tells the budding do-gooder.

The bad news just keeps piling up.  Lynn finds out she’s pregnant by William Allen Young, a rather ornery man, but no one is very excited.  Lynn thinks it will be nice to have a sibling for her other child, but William loses his job and is afraid of how they will manage.  “When I have this baby, I’ll have my tubes tied,” she says, but he can’t see that far into the future.  “I swear, with you and these two kids on my back, ain’t nothing ever gonna happen,” is his response before tearing out of the apartment.  Cue the abortion.  “I’m still young.  I got plenty of time,” Lynn cries to Oprah as she tries to make her understand why she had to do it.

Robin’s biggest problem is her mother showing up unexpectedly.  Cicely Tyson looks glamorous in a Chanel suit, refusing to call her daughter by her back-to-Africa name (this is the 1960s, FYI).  Cicely keeps harping on the fact that Robin has no phone, which costs $75.  Cicely wants to pay for the phone, but Robin refuses, preferring to “make  it” on her own.  “This is how poor people live,” Robin notes, to which Cicely replies, “but we’re not poor.”  “No, Mama, you’re not poor!” Robin volleys back.  Robin is easily the most annoying character in the movie because her character’s plot has aged the worst.  The drama of the poor in the ghetto is universal and always timely, but the once-stock character of the rich girl wanting to live among what she considers “our people” died with the 60s, when people actually did that.  Robin Givens is ideal casting, I admit, but the character is given to us with no sense of humor and nothing to her that says she’s anything but that stock character that even by 1989 had ceased to be realistic.

Cicely is only around briefly, but that doesn’t stop her for going for the gold with this bit when Robin gets all high and mighty about her parents being wealthy, to her an affrontery on black culture: “Then know this.  I am alive because of the blood of a people who never scraped or begged or apologized for what they were.  They asked only one thing of this world, to be allowed TO BE!  And I learned through the blood of these people that black isn’t beautiful.  It isn’t ugly.  It isn’t kinky hair.  It isn’t straight hair.  BLACK IS JUST BLACK!”  As if that hissing isn’t a present enough to an actress, it continues.  “It broke my heart when you changed your name.  I gave you my grandmother’s name, a woman who bore nine children and educated them all, who held off six white men with a shotgun when they tried to drag off one them off to jail for not knowing his place.  And you have to reach into an African dictionary to make a name that would make you proud!  When I brought my babies home from the hospital, I swore to whatever gods would listen that I would use everything I had or could get so that my children would be prepared to meet this world on its own terms, so that no one could make them ashamed of what they were or how they looked…that’s not white or red or black or purple.  That’s being a mother.”  Cicely uses every trick in the acting handbook to gnaw on the scenery.  It’s a hokey speech, to be sure, especially delivered by Cicely with her hand to God, but she’s a total pro in a wasteland of so-so actresses and thus makes it work regally.  If spoken by anyone else, it would be a laugh riot.

“There’s gonne be trouble,” Olivia Cole says to Jackee, both sitting on the stoop.  They are referring to “two young girls living by themselves,” Lonette McKee and Paula Kelly.  Jackee doesn’t see the harm, but Olivia has a suspicion that they are going to be throwing parties.  Oh, she doesn’t know the half of it!

Jumping back onto her high horse, Robin intensifies her efforts to form a tenants association, this time going after Phyllis, who has one of those moments I mentioned in the opening.  Up until now, Phyllis has kind of  been the comic relief, but when Robin sits in her apartment, Phyllis gets to prattle on about how much she loves her kids, something about baby dolls and Christmas wishes.  It doesn’t work, not coming from her mouth.  What does work is the topper to the starry-eyed monologue.  “And they they grow up and turn into these little dumb asses!” she roars back into action, upset that one of her kids ruined a curtain rod, while Robin is actually concerned about the kid it fell on.  As if her unwarrented parental lessons aren’t enough, Robin invites Phyllis and her kids to an all-black Shakespeare production.  I don’t care where the kids are growing up; no one that young should ever have to sit through Shakespeare, worst of all one of the comedies!

Pissed off about something, William arrives home to tell Lynn he’s leaving for a job on the docks in Maine…or Newport…or somewhere he can’t exactly remember.  Lynn wants to go with him, but he refuses.  They argue loudly while in the other room, their baby chases a cockroach into an electrical outlet with a pair of scissors.  A sound effect is the only thing we need to know how that ends up.  Lynn is catatonic with self-hatred while Oprah feeds the neighborhood shiva-sitters.  Jackee pulls Oprah aside to ask if anyone knows where William has “taken his sorry butt” and Oprah declares, “no, but he better keep it there!”  They come to the conclusion that Lynn is trying to slowly kill herself by not eating and getting very sick.

Here comes Big Bad Oprah, the one who probably practiced this scene on some employees before letting it rip before the cameras.  Gulping air into her chest and standing erect, she tears into Lynn’s room and announces, “I promise you, you leave this world, it’s going to be over my dead body.” She grabs Lynn, rocking her and shouting, “come on back” over and over as the music swells and Lynn gets the tears flowing.  Oprah gives her a nice bath, which is filmed in an unfortunate style that makes it seem strangely sexual, though it’s obviously anything but.  Lynn finally dissolves into the expected crying fit with Oprah’s meaty arms tucked around her.

It’s Shakespeare time!  Phyllis wraps her 15 or so kids in their finest wrapping for the outing, even gussying herself up.  Olivia’s eyes almost pop out of her head when she sees the well-behaved family trotting off, shocked to hear what they are doing.

Also surprised is Oprah, who goes to check in on Lynn, only to find her and her belongings gone.  She’s upset, but nothing stops her from going to church.  There’s a guest reverend, Douglas Turner Ward, and Jackee sets her sights on him.  She manages to find out in 30 seconds that he’s a widower, all but throwing herself at the poor man while Oprah disapproves.  “If you had batten them eyelashes any faster, we would have had a dust storm in there,” she growls.  This time, however, Jackee doesn’t take Oprah’s sass and gets another of the movie’s Big Moments.  “No upstanding decent man could ever see in her anything but a quick good time.  Well, let me tell you something…I’ve always traveled first class, maybe not in the way you approve of with all your fine Christian principles, but it’s done all right by me.  And I’m gonna keep going top drawer until the day I leave this earth.  Don’t you think I got me a mirror?  Each year there’s a new line to be covered.  I lay down with this body and I get up with it every morning and every day it cries for a little more rest than the day before.  Well, I’m gonna get me that rest and it’s gonna be with a fine man…and all you slack-mouth gossips and roosters can just be damned.  You know I’ve always known what they have said behind my back, but I never thought you’d be right up there with them,” she bravely says to Oprah.  Since Oprah insists the man only wants sex, and Jackee has finer thoughts, it’s a stand-off.  I have to give Jackee the credit here.  Instead of delivering her Big Moment in a shrill manner, she is sedate and calm, a nice counterbalance to all the overheated Big Moments everyone else can’t resist using.

And how do things end up for Jackee?  She gets all kittenish in Douglas’ car as he says he couldn’t take his eyes off her in church, that most women don’t look beautiful in church anymore, blah, blah, blah, and then it’s inside for some jazz-infused sex.  “God and me ain’t got a lot to say to one another,” Jackee confesses after the act, continuing the thread she started with Oprah, that it’s time to change her life.  Unfortunately, Douglas isn’t there to hear the lovely lesson, as he’s in the bathroom getting dressed.  “Yeah, is there somewhere I can drop you off?”  Oh, let’s pray together that Oprah doesn’t go hog wild with the “I told you so” routine.  When she gets home, Oprah is in her rocking chair listening to Jackee’s records, saying “I wasn’t worried,” but we all know she was.  Friendship triumphs again.

“Those two sure do shop a lot.  Where do you reckon they get all that money from?” Olivia wonders, back to her new favorite targets, Lonette and Paula.  “They…you know…that way!” Olivia tells Oprah and Jackee, who don’t believe it, but let Olivia spew anyway.  Olivia watches the girls from her window, hoping for proof.

In her zeal to better the neighborhood, Robin paints a mural on the brick wall, but Oprah is negative about the whole concept.  The drug dealers will only spray paint over it.  “I don’t know why it’s gotta be here,” she says, pouring out dirt from two dead plants, the very symbol of the wall’s confinement.  “Traffic control,” Robin answers, because she’s actually researched it.  It seems that Brewster Place “got the wall” because there are no rich people in the area.  Oprah has a new reason to be indignant, so Robin tells her to do something about it.  “I could tear down this wall with my bare hands, they’d just send someone in the next day to put it up again,” she whines.  “But at least you would have done somthing,” Robin says, only to be shut up by Oprah’s call of “you’re young, you’ll see what I mean.”

At home, Lonette wonders to Paula if she’s noticed that “people aren’t as nice as they used to be.”  Paula is of the opinion that neighborhood gossips don’t mean anything, building up to a boil as she reminds Lonette that every time she feels “they” are judging Lonette and Paula, the girls have to move and give up what was apparently quite a good life, now living in the ghetto because it’s the only place left.  “Look out the window…you see that wall?  It’s the end of the line…and I’m not moving again!” Paula rails, but Lonette calls her on her bitchy mood and the two soon iron it out.  Lonette is a teacher and worries that parents will find out about her, but Paula tells her not to fret so much.

Believe it or not, Robin puts together her tenants association and everyone gathers.  Robin’s aim is to present a united front against the landlord who owns all of the Brewster Place buildings, but the cast would rather pick at each other, especially Olivia, who takes this opportunity to bash the lesbians once again, before spewing at Jackee for defending them, tramp that she is.  Lonette shows up while the gang is working itself into a lather.  Robin wants someone to take the minutes and Lonette volunteers.  “Ain’t we supposed to vote who we want for secretary?” Olivia opines.  Big Moment cue.  As the masses harumpfh about her behavior, she stands up and starts.  “Why should a decent woman get insulted while you all take the sides of the likes of THEM [the lesbians]?  Pick on me!  Pick on me!  Like I’m the one going around in a filthy unnatural way,” she snarls, holding one of Robin’s African statues for protection.  “You ain’t welcome here!” Olivia shouts.  But Lonette tries to defend herself, but Olivia isn’t letting anyone steal her thunder.  “You forgot to close your shades last night and I saw.  I saw the both of you, you and her standing in the bathroom door dripping wet and naked as you be,” before launching into a tirade that is delivered as if she is the last living snake on earth.  It’s a hoot, but hey, as they say in the computer world, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Olivia’s character is simply and old-fashioned bitch, so she might as well have fun playing it.  She’s halted first by Moses Gunn, the sweet-natured superintendant, and then by Robin, who calls her a “self-righteous old wench.”  Olivia leaves, her face contorted with hatred for everyone.

Moses chases Lonette out of the meeting to make sure she’s okay, even inviting her to his place for tea.  “I don’t get that much company,” a clearly nervous Moses says.  They confide in each other so Lonette can unroll her troubled back story.  She was kicked out of the house at 17 and her letters home went unanswered.  She even tried to call once, but her mother hung up.  As she gets her shot at the big cry, Moses takes her hand and says she reminds him of his long-gone handicapped daughter.  “I liked you from the first off,” the kindly old man says.

Next to get up into Lonette’s business are the gang members (including Mike Tyson, Mr. Robin Givens at the time), who tease Lonette.  Glenn, not the most clever gang leader, offers to show Lonette what a “real man” can do, but Robin jumps in and snaps back, “from what I hear, she wouldn’t even notice.”  Robin and Lonette do not frighten easily and the gang slinks off.  Paula is anxiously awaiting her arrival when Lonette gets home because they have been invited to a club by some gay friends.  Lonette refuses, claiming she’s always hated the club and the men.  “They’re nothing but a couple of fags,” she says.  “So what, we’re nothing but a couple of dykes,” Paula retorts.  “You can call yourself anything you want to, but you leave me out of it,” Lonette says, causing Paula to rattle off all the names lesbians are called, asking her girlfriend why she “can’t accept it.”  Lonette views her sexuality as nothing different, but Paula disagrees.  You want to know how Lonette came to her conclusion?  Well, we’re gonna hear it anyway.  While I agree with the speech 100%, it’s too cheesy to take seriously.  Apparently, the only two “constants” in her life are her “beige bra and oatmeal” because the day before she first fell in love with a woman, she had her beige bra and oatmeal and the day after she fell in love, same thing.  Thus, nothing is different.  Paula argues her side and frankly, I find her more convincing.

The tenants association (which means Robin) puts on a block party, turning the cul-de-sac into a fun atmosphere of good music and good food.  Oprah gets Olivia to participate by sending her for ice, and Olivia grudgingly accepts.  Jackee is invited to dance.  “Girl, you better act your age,” Oprah warns her, and Jackee says, “I am.  35,” and joins the fun.

Pushing her way through the dancing is returning Lynn, looking healthy and happy in a polka dot dress and big sun hat.  She explains to Oprah that she’s been living in New York City and wanted to take a few days off from her new life to see Oprah and Jackee, who can tell from Lynn’s sparkle that she has a boyfriend.  “Oooh, I’m gonna bake your wedding cake,” Oprah chants, no doubt dreaming of licking the bowl already.

Lonette gives in and gets dressed to go to the club.  Now it’s Paula’s turn to sulk.  “I’m gonna go without you,” brave Lonette says, though Paula says, “you won’t last there five minutes without me.”  The stubborn lovers stand their ground and Lonette leaves.  Just as she’s about to get on the bus, she decides against it, looking up to see Paula chain smoking in the window.  She goes knocking on Moses’ door, looking for a good shoulder and tea, but he’s not home.  Instead, it’s Glenn she finds, still angry at the jokes she made at his expense.  Pulling out a switchblade, he forces her into a corner by the brick wall and rapes her, the music from the block party drowned out by the haunting score as he beats her to the ground and bends over.

Night has long fallen, but the party is still raging.  Jackee is leading all of the youngsters in dancing and Oprah is feeding everyone the special Angel Food cake she and Barbara made growing up.  Oprah even mentions her son by name and admits, “it’s not so bad” remembering.  Oprah sends Moses to the brick wall to fetch a box for the trash and he discovers Lonette bleeding on the ground.  In an altered mental state, she views him as a threat and smacks him over and over with a piece of wood.  When Moses doesn’t return with the box, Oprah has to go herself.  She makes the grisly discovery of dead Moses and horrified Lonette.

“Come quick, some awful’s done happened!” Oprah yells into the party, then running (Oprah running, which is not to be confused with Jamaican Olympians are capable of) for help.  They try to get Lonette up, but she just sees Glenn and swings her piece of wood.  Paula hears the police come and decides to see what is going on.  An extra tells her that Moses has been beaten, by “your friend” as the woman says.  Lonette insists that Paula be allowed into the ambulance with her and by now the party mood has disappeared.

And then it comes.  Yup, the moment we’ve been waiting for.  The climax, Oprah-style.  As rain starts to come down, Oprah gulps air again and looks at the brick wall.  “That’s why I don’t trust trying no more.  The harder folks try, the more something comes along and smacks ’em down.  It’s always something standing in the way of good…and I’m tired of it!”  This is the 80s, before Oprah could snap her fingers and make the wall disappear, so her character has to walk slowly through the rain drops to the wall with courage and strength, taking a rusty tool and hitting the wall, the crowd dazed momentarily.  Jackee joins her, their wigs drenched as they hammer away at the wall.  Then Lynn and Phyllis join.  And Robin too, with her boyfriend.  More and more come and they chip away at the wall, one brick at a time.  The music goes into gospel overdrive as our leads take out bricks and pass them behind them, the spirit of community raging inside of everyone.  The look on Oprah’s face tells her character’s whole story.  Sirens are heard and Jackee says that “they gonna throw all our butts in jail,” to which Oprah responds with the classic, “then I guess we gonna have to tear down that too!”  Further dialogue is unecessary

That’s the end.

Actually, 20+ years after watching “The Women of Brewster Place” for the first time, I found it more dated than I had expected.  The social injustices shouldn’t seem as, well, for lack of a better word, trite, as they do here.  The whole thing plays like a history lesson, which is a shame because there are some great opportunities to dive into character moments here.  The actresses are game, but the script just gives them speech and speech and they don’t end up as lovable as they should, instead settling in as types: the cranky old lady, the middle-class slummer, the happy-go-lucky tramp, although two lesbians are definitely unexpected!

Mama Oprah is, naturally, front and center, and she gives as good a performance as anyone could in the role of den mother to the community, but frankly, she does that better when she’s herself and not playing a character.  Hindsight makes this movie seem incidental.  Why can’t Oprah just descend in a helicopter, tell someone to tear down the wall and be back home by snack time?  She’s friggin’ Oprah, for crying out loud!

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

5 Comments to “The Women of Brewster Place (1989)”

  1. Anonymous 18 March 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    This was very enjoyable and it actually made me want to watch the movie.

  2. jasmine 14 October 2011 at 4:10 am #

    iam lookin for information on the paintin of the picture on the wall of a black angel with two little black children in it if some one can give me some info on it please thanks

  3. jasmine 14 October 2011 at 4:11 am #

    the paintin in brewster place

  4. nunu1938 27 May 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    When are you all going to shows,BREWSTER`S PLACE

    • Bj Kirschner 29 June 2014 at 6:57 pm #

      “The Women of Brewster Place” has been discussed here. Did you find it? That is actually the most popular entry of all on this ongoing discussion of the American Miniseries.