Rich Black Women: An Unapologetic New Period Film

Black writers have always poked around in different corners of history, telling our stories from past eras. You might not know that, though, judging by how invisible we are in popular films and TV shows set in 19th century and earlier eras. Well, writers are giving it another shot with ‘The House that Will Not Stand,’ a film adaptation of a historical play by Marcus Gardley. It involves the lives of free Black women living in 1800s New Orleans. A project featuring my favorite American city, New Orleans with Black women anchoring the cast telling a story dressed in silks, and petticoats. If you know me, you can hear me squealing! (And possibly humming the ‘Game of Thrones’ theme.) Yes, yes, it’s out of context and far more brutal. But anyway!

According to entertainment news Website Shadow and Act,

The main characters are free Black Creole women who fought against racism and became millionaires through plaçage, or the practice of common-law marriages between white men and Black women, biracial women of color, or Native American women). The play, which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop this year.

I know what some haters are going to say; these women earned their riches by laying down with white men. And? So did generations of white women. It was called marriage, and I’m sure the husbands, children and household benefited from a lady with her head who kept things stable and orderly. That’s how we came into the archetype of the ‘rich white woman,’ who inspired so many hours of play over plastic tea sets — porcelain if your parents had a fancy office job and could afford it.

Truth be told, I’ve always had mixed feelings about watching period films. Those works testify to uncomfortable eras or Black people. While I loved these sharp-witted ladies in the parlor settings, and the court intrigue of superior men, my skin folk was often rendered as second-class citizens at best — property at worst. You can understand why Black audiences prefer more modern stories.

I could never give myself over completely to the ‘rich white woman’ fantasy, even for playtime. Our mothers often didn’t sit down with us at tea, because they were working, running the home, or volunteering at church. And even if I could occupy that identity and pretend to order a servant to bring the petit fours and gossip over what Lady Shirl wore to the racing outing, in the corner of consciousness would be a familiar figure, looming. My mother and aunts were that domestic worker, and at any time they might have been lorded over by someone I was pretending to be — or pestered a handsy husband. All so that I could have the essentials, and then stacks of books, dolls, toys and the leisure of playtime. Wouldn’t that be a betrayal in some way? 

I loved Grace Abigail Mills’ heroics in modern-day Sleepy Hollow, and her rapport with her fellow witness, the man out of time, Ichabod Crane. But when Abbie was thrown back to the 1700s, in a plot parallel to what brought her partner to the modern era, I was a little terrified for her. Reader, I knew — we all knew — the trauma that awaited women like Abbie in Colonial America. 

Lately, I’ve had to turn to streaming services and pick over leftovers from past movies or defunct TV shows to get my period piece fixes. We saw a pickup in period projects where Black women bustled around in their stays and petticoats — WGN gave us “Underground,” PBS offered “Mercy Street,” and Starz had “Black Sails,” but all of these shows were canceled in under five seasons.  Oh! I forgot “Still Star-Crossed,” from ABC, set in one of storytellers favorite periods, Renaissance Europe. I haven’t forgiven Shondaland for imbuing Prince Escalus with a sharpness and cruelty that made it hard to like him as a husband for Rosaline Capulet.

That, in a nutshell, is the Black experience in period films. Even when we do get to dress up in one of those confections and float around a staggering English estate, like “Belle,” we are never the fair lady at court, and rarely unmolested. What a huge tradeoff. At least this time, the rich woman sitting down to tea will be Black, and reader, she is a playtime role model whose time is overdue.