Picks and Pans Review: The Women of Brewster Place
Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced and stars in this four-hour miniseries, cannot be accused of giving an audience too little. Subtlety is not something she lost on her diet. The unfocused, overly ambitious drama, set largely in a tenement building in an unnamed city, comes off as part The Color Purple, A Raisin in the Sun, O. Henry's Full House and Torch Song Trilogy. Based on the novel by Gloria Naylor and directed by Donna (Desert Hearts) Deitch, the melodrama spans several decades. It opens in the 1970s when Oprah, as Mattie Michael, takes lodging in a rundown brownstone on a dead-end street—Brewster Place. Before we meet the neighbors, there is a flashback replaying the cruel conditions that drove Mattie there, starting with her teenage years on a rural farm. That takes up most of the first night and at least one box of Kleenex. By Part II you think that no more woe could possibly befall her. You're wrong. Through emotional rain, snow, sleet and hail, she stalwartly trudges on, lending support to friends and neighbors, giving out more hugs than Leo Buscaglia. When a political activist (Robin Givens) organizes a tenant-rights group, the oppressed women of Brewster Place enlist, cranking up their levels of political awareness. But that plot gets the heave-ho when a more titillating turn of events occurs. Into Brewster Place moves a persecuted lesbian couple, Paula Kelly and Lonette McKee. Suddenly the show becomes a crusade against homophobia. Besides McKee, who gives a sensitive, troubled performance, other standouts are Jackee Harry of TV's 227 as Etta Mae, Mattie's longtime friend, and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney as Cora Lee, a ditzy welfare mother. The worst-overacting-of-the-century award must go to Cicely Tyson, who plays Given's stuffy, upper-middle-class mom. She attacks her one scene, in which she tells off her daughter, with the ferocity of a pit bull. Despite all the hokum, this saccharine, uplifting miniseries does take chances and is at least too campy ever to be dull.