The Women of Brewster Place is a collection of intertwining narratives of love, pain, confusion, resilience and, ultimately, catharsis, all within the tenement neighborhood of Brewster Place. The homes are modest and often run down. There's a large brick wall that blocks off the area from the rest of the city. It feels like a hopeless place at the end of the world.
The miniseries, which aired on ABC in 1989, is based on the 1982 novel by Gloria Naylor and adapted to the small screen by writer Karen Hall (Judging Amy) and director Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts), and was produced by Oprah Winfrey through Harpo Productions. It is a showcase of ordinary women trying to overcome poverty, adversity, and loneliness, the kind of working-class story that tends to only appear on television in a comedy format, and hadn't been told with an all-black cast since the '70s. The Cosby Show had dominated the '80s, popularizing a narrative of black prosperity that became a television staple, while stories of hardship were sidelined.
All-black dramas have always struggled to remain on the air, perhaps in part because they tend to center black women. The first series of its kind to see any kind of success was Soul Food, the Showtime series and spinoff of the 1997 film of the same name that ran from 2000 to 2004. A decade later, Shonda Rhimes was able to give black women a foothold into drama with the more diverse casts of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. But it wasn't until the launching of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that all-black dramas like Queen Sugar and Greenleaf were given the space and budget to thrive.
But in the late '80s, black women had The Women of Brewster Place to tell our more dramatic stories on the small screen. There, talented black actresses who previously could only stretch their acting muscles in the theater were able to make their mark on a wider, younger, economically diverse audience. The cast of The Women of Brewster Place is a who's who of entertainment history's most gifted black actresses: Mary Alice, Cicely Tyson, Barbara Montgomery, Lynn Whitfield, Olivia Cole, Lonette McKee, Paula Kelly, alongside more recognizable talents like Jackée Harry, Robin Givens, and of course, Oprah. Those who can only think of Oprah as a larger-than-life media presence are quick to forget how she often forgoes glamour to give humane, measured performances that hold a mirror to society and remind us how black women are viewed and treated. Her earthy honesty is the glue that holds the physically and emotionally diverse cast together.