OK, I finally bought the two-DVD set of this TV movie because I’ve been super curious about it. I loved the hell out of Anne Rice’s novel, upon which it’s based, yet I don’t know where I was when the movie aired. The early aughts, man, I had a lot of shit going on. So I’ve watched The Feast of All Saints (2001), set in New Orleans of the 1840s, telling a story of the gens de couleur libres, free people of color, before the Civil War.
It’s a complicated, fascinating time period and culture that really deserves more on-screen exploration. This community came about from rich white landowners setting up second “families” with enslaved black mistresses, and their mixed-race children were usually freed. But the gens de couleur libres had a precarious status in New Orleans, needing protection and indulgence from the white people, still serving at their whims, and still subject to violence. They were only free in name, in contrast to the enslaved black people on the plantations outside of the city. Instead of being put on the auction block, mixed-race young women were offered up by their mothers and aunts at quadroon balls, where white men could select their next mistress. Thus, the cycle continued.
This TV movie begins with a bloody scene of massacre in 1804 that ended the Haitian Revolution. Then we’re introduced to Cecile Ste. Marie (Gloria Reuben), a Haitian woman who is passed, as a mistress, from one white man to his cousin and heir, Philippe Ferronaire (Peter Gallagher), and they have two children, Marcel (Robert Ri’chard) and Marie (Nicole Lyn). Philippe also has a daughter, Lisette (Rachel Luttrell) with a woman Zazu (Karen Glave), and both daughter and mother are given by him as slaves to Cecile and her children. The film is narrated by an older Marcel, voiced by James Earl Jones, lending some gravity to the story.
This is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale where Marcel learns the truth about his heritage and how the world works. But the real action is driven by the women in the story and the choices they are often forced to make by a racist and sexist system they live in. Cecile is invested in the tradition of plaçage, that has set a white male benefactor for her and her children. She believes Philippe will give Marcel an education in Paris and Marie should gain her own benefactor as well. However, Marie is in love with Marcel’s friend Richard. Another free black girl, Anna Bella, is being groomed by her mother for a plaçage deal with Phillipe’s brother-in-law, but she and Marcel are in love. Lisette is resentful of the different way her father treats his children from different women, and this causes frictions that develop into a key plot point. I found that the romantic entanglements are entwined with the historical conditions in a believable fashion, neither too revisionist nor too bleak.
One big complaint is that the dialog can be wooden — for example Peter Gallagher is super stagey and is given a whole lot of exposition to expound upon in the first hour. Then again, Anne Rice isn’t the best at writing natural dialog, so this could be taken straight from the book for all I remember, especially since she was an executive producer. However, that the only significant white character is the worst is fine with me, since most of the action takes place between the black characters, and while the writing quality is uneven, their interactions are compelling and mostly well nuanced.
Thankfully, the production values are pretty high, and some money was thrown at this feature by Showtime (where it premiered). There’s about 10 minutes at the beginning set in the 1820s showing a dragoon ball when Cecile was young, featuring gorgeous gowns and dancing. The rest of the film is set in the 1840s, when Marcel is just about to turn 18. Older Cecile and Marie get some very pretty outfits, and Marcel is quite smartly dressed. Hair, hats, and other accessories are generally appropriate to the period — down to parasols being lined. Extras tend to be in basic Victorian / Civil War era, and there is one REAL clunker of an outfit (and character, though let’s blame that on the source material) on Jasmine Guy, but overall, the costumes and sets are overall lovely to look at.
Have you seen The Feast of All Saints? Are you an Anne Rice fan?