The 1989 miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place, artfully captures the struggles of women as their stories weave together on Brewster Place. Although shown on television more than twenty years ago, the challenges faced by the characters reinforce the need for continued action today.
Viewers journey along with Mattie Michael, played skillfully by Oprah, as she grapples with pregnancy, abuse from her father, the arrest of her son and subsequent loss of her home; amidst all of this, Mattie is also a rock, supporting the women close to her with their own challenges. As tragedy upon tragedy befalls both herself and those close to her within the broader context of the oppression they are facing, she transforms from a hopeful young woman, thinking that the white jury will listen to the evidence in a potential trial of her arrested son to an angry, exhausted leader of her neighbors. At the miniseries conclusion, Mattie takes the initiative to begin ripping down the brick wall, built by those with more power. This powerful scene, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which would happen only months after the airing of the miniseries, involves Mattie leading neighbors to destroy the wall with passion and vigor.
She declares in this scene:
“That’s why I don’t trust trying no more. Harder folks try, the more something comes along and smacks them down. There’s always something. Standing in the way of good, blocking it out. Just like that wall blocking off this street and I’m tired of it. You all hear me? I’m tired of it. And I can’t stand it no more.”
Through flashbacks and powerful storytelling, viewers become witnesses to Mattie’s struggles. They are able to see the various ways in which people continue to get shut down because of their perceived group affiliation and the structural system that is holding them down. And, although Melanie (“Kiswana”) is the one who tries to organize the tenant association, Mattie is ultimately the one who leads the charge to tear down the wall, reinforcing that although others might play a role of nudging along and setting the stage, organizing from within is the most powerful.
In addition to the lesson about the importance of rising up against powerful structures, such as the wall, this miniseries is compelling on many levels. It is teachable because of the ways in which racism, sexism and homophobia are exhibited and how they, along with institutional structures, combine to make the lives of women of color challenging. Viewers experience honest conversations between the lesbian partners as they disagree on whether or not they are “different” as Lorraine fights back against being associated in a group of “dykes” while her partner T insists that “as long as they own the whole damn world, it’s “them” and “us” and that spells different.”
The incidents of sexism are overflowing in this miniseries, most notably between Ciel and Gene when she feels compelled (or forced) to have an abortion. Viewers witness her husband complain that he is “tired of us never getting ahead” and talking about how he wants money for himself and despite her own desires, when defending her abortion she explains, “he’s my husband and I have to think about what’s best for him and this was for the best.”
Viewers also glimpse the struggle between Kiswana and her mother as Kiswana tries to return to “my people” by moving to the poverty stricken Brewster Place and organizing them into a Tenant Association. Concurrently, her mother worries about her daughter living with “these people” and wants to know “what help can you possibly be to these people?” Kiswana’smother is dismayed that her daughter would choose to go live with “poor people” and “reach into the African dictionary to find a name that would make you proud” rather than keeping the name of her grandmother, who her mother believed to be a strong woman. Issues of class, race and identity and the trickiness of navigating these issues across generations are highlighted in their interaction and in Kiswana’s first encounters with her new neighbors and the judgment she heaps on them.
Given the honesty of the interactions in this miniseries and the lesson of the importance of grassroots activism, it is a must-see for anyone exploring issues of oppression and wanting to glimpse into the unique struggles of women of color and the ways in which they can rise up.
by Samantha Goldman