Back in the Day: “The Women of Brewster Place”

 
 

Back in the Day is a column that takes a look back at key moments in the history of lesbians and bisexual women in entertainment.

In
1989, The Cosby Show was the number one television
program in the U.S. The show was revolutionary in its portrayal of African Americans,
giving America an upper middle-class, highly educated African American family
led by Dr. Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby) and his attorney wife, Clair (Phylicia
Rashad).

At the same time, Oprah Winfrey was just beginning her transformation from talk show host to media titan. She had been nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Sofia in The Color Purple (1984), and her talkshow had debuted in national syndication in September 1986 to unprecedented ratings. It seemed that decades of racism on television was finally being overturned.

But
Oprah’s first foray into producing a dramatic feature was not met with universal
acclaim. Her 1989 television adaptation of Gloria Naylor’s National Book Award-winning
novel, The Women of Brewster Place, was criticized by both African
Americans and non-African Americans for portraying African American men in a
decidedly negative light.

Greg Quill of The Toronto Star wrote, “The perspective in this overly long and sentimental drama, starring and co-produced by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, is relentlessly feminist; the men in the story are almost universally brutal, selfish oafs, devoid of conscience or any sense of responsibility.”

And Martha Bayles of the Wall Street Journal argued, “Brewster Place's woman-centered universe, the ideal of boilerplate 1970s feminists who saw all male-female relationships as exploitative, doesn't look so good in 1989.”

The mainstream critique of Brewster Place as misandrist and “relentlessly feminist” nearly obscured the fact that one of the main storylines in the miniseries centered on an African American lesbian couple—something that had never before been seen on American primetime television.

The miniseries,
which aired on ABC from March 18-19, 1989, was executive produced by Oprah
Winfrey (who also starred in it as Mattie Michael) and directed by Donna Deitch
(Desert Hearts).

Set in a 1967
tenement in a nameless East Coast city, The Women of Brewster Place
tells the stories of seven working-class African American women and their
struggles with men, racism, and making a living. Although the storylines of
the characters are intertwined to a degree, the lesbian storyline is mostly
told in the second half of the miniseries.

Lorraine (Lonette
McKee), a teacher, lost her job after it was discovered that she was a lesbian,
and she and her partner Tee (Paula Kelly) move to Brewster Place
in hope that they can live together in peace. But soon after they arrive in
Brewster Place, neighborhood gossip Miss Sophie (Olivia Cole) begins to spread
rumors about their sexuality in an effort to force them out. A local gangster,
C.C. Baker, threatens and torments Lorraine, calling her “lezbo,” “butch,”
and “freak.”

In a conversation
between the two women, Tee urges Lorraine to come to terms with the labels:

TEE:
Lorraine, you are a lesbian. A dyke, a lesbo, a butch — all those names that
boy was callin’ you… Why can’t you just accept it?
LORRAINE: I have accepted it! I’ve accepted it all my life!
I lost my family because of that, but it doesn’t make me any different from
anybody else in this world!
TEE: It makes you damn different…. As long as they
own the whole damn world, it’s them and us, and that spells different.

Tee and Lorraine’s only friends in the housing project are young black activist Kiswana (Robin Givens) and elderly handyman Ben (Moses Gunn). The homophobic slurs against Tee and Lorraine climax at the finale of the miniseries, when C.C. Baker assaults Lorraine with a switchblade and rapes her.

Shortly after the
crime, Ben comes across a distraught and traumatized Lorraine, who shouts at
him to stay away from her. But when he tries to calm her down, she attacks him
with a wooden club. In the novel, Lorraine beats Ben to death, but in the miniseries
he is taken away in an ambulance and it remains unclear whether he survived
the beating.

The attack on Lorraine
galvanizes the women of Brewster Place, who band together in the triumphant
conclusion to tear down the brick wall that separates the tenement from the
rest of the city.

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