“The Feast of All Saints” (2001) was a Showtime television miniseries based on the 1979 Anne Rice novel of the same name. It is set in French Creole New Orleans of the 1840s. Most of the main characters are neither White nor Black but the middle-class, mixed-race free people of colour who lived in between those two worlds.
Features: quadroon balls, voodoo, big dresses, top hats, a duel and the Haitian Revolution.
Cast: James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Ben Vereen, Jennifer Beals, Gloria Reuben, Pam Grier, Jasmine Guy, Victoria Rowell, Forest Whitacker, Bianca Lawson, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis. Among others.
Jennifer Beals was wonderful, with her eyes that had seen too much. Ben Vereen was so good I did not even know it was him. Jasmine Guy and Eartha Kitt seemed like they belonged to that world more than ours. Forest Whitaker, though, was goofily out of place.
The free people of colour considered themselves neither Black nor White, not even those who could pass for White (Jennifer Beals) or who were as dark as any slave (Ossie Davis). They looked down on Blacks and were thankful for their freedom. But that freedom was limited by Whites: while they could get an education, own property – some even had slaves – they could not vote or marry White.
The film turns on that last bit: it led to plaçage (rhymes with massage) where White men often had a house and a family with free women of colour but could never marry them. Cecile Ste. Marie (Gloria Reuben) is such a woman. We follow her and the fate of her two children, who come of age in a world of fool’s gold.
Accuracy: The film fits what I know about that time and place – though, some of what I think I know probably comes second-hand from this very story. The one thing that seemed off was when a White man defended the honour of a woman of colour. Also, I have little faith that the voodoo parts were accurate.
Race: The film is an excellent example of a story written by a White author about people of colour that is done right.
It easily passes the Bechdel Test for Race since only one of the main viewpoint characters is White. Instead of White Saviours and Helpless Darkies, so beloved by Hollywood, Scene One is the Haitian Revolution.
The main characters of colour are fleshed out, have moral complexity, love lives, all of it. They are not walking-talking stereotypes. Hollywood mostly shows Black middle class characters as Noble But Boring or as side characters. Here they take centre stage and are recognizably human, in all its beauty and sadness.
Unlike “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – also set in Louisiana in the 1840s – it does not seem to be cleaned up for White audiences. It shows how racism, sexism and capitalism deform lives and corrupt morals. And not in a dismissive, Bad Old Days kind of way, but where you can see that US society is still like that, just less extreme.
– Abagond, 2014.