When it comes to author Anne Rice, it’s all about blood.
Although Showtime’s original mini “The Feast of All Saints” is based on one of the few Rice books that doesn’t deal with vampires, the notion of bloodlines and bloodshed are an integral part of this engrossing tale.
This sweeping costumer, featuring a virtual who’s-who of African-American Hollywood, took 25 years to make it to the small screen. Devoted fans will no doubt revel in yet another colorful adaptation of Rice’s work, while others will be enticed by the rich but uneven portrait of a little-known piece of history.
“Feast,” a fictional story based in fact, explores the lives of free people of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans. This unique class of citizens was spared the tyranny of slavery and, in fact, enjoyed many social advantages, but was not afforded the same rights as the white middle class.
Caught between privilege and oppression, the “gens de couleur libres” had to overcome classism, sexism and racism within their own community.
Mini opens as the adult Marcel St. Marie (James Earl Jones) reflects on his ancestors for the Feast of All Saints, the day of remembering the dead. Through flashbacks, we learn how his mother, Cecil St. Marie (Gloria Rueben) came to Louisiana with her guardian (Victoria Rowell) from Haiti, and as a young woman entered into a placage with wealthy plantation owner Philippe Ferronnaire (Peter Gallagher).
As was the custom at the time, many young women entered into an arrangement in which white landowners kept women of color as mistresses. In exchange for their affections, the women were granted limited access to middle-class society. Depending on the level of bartering done by their parent or guardian, the women could receive monthly stipends, clothes, houses and assurances that their children would be formally educated.
Marcel is a product of such an arrangement, and when he is born, Philippe refuses to give him his name but promises to send him to Paris to be educated when he is 18. Despite little contact or affection from Philippe, young Marcel (Robert Ri’chard) and his sister Marie (Nicole Lyn) enjoy a privileged upbringing.
Formally educated by Christopher Mercier (Daniel Sunjata), Marcel also is befriended by cabinetmaker Jean-Jacques (Ossie Davis), who teaches him about the darker history of his people, despite Cecil’s objections.
Just as Marcel begins to question his place in life, he is forced to contend with Philippe’s betrayal when he reneges on promises. Part one ends with the brutal confrontation between father and son.
Part two explores the repercussions of Marcel’s unique heritage and the frustrations he faces despite his supposed middle-class standing. There’s a fine moral line between being owned and being kept, and, as Marcel and Marie fight to create a place for themselves, they come dangerously close to repeating past mistakes.
It’s not an easy story to tell, but writer John Wilder does an adequate job of conveying Rice’s notions of a society desperate for survival. The young women who entered placage did so as a way to escape poverty and hard labor for themselves and for their children. The plantation owners, desperate to keep their family property, often entered into loveless marriages and turned to other avenues for fulfillment.
Director Peter Medak veers dangerously close to melodrama at times, playing up the bodice-ripping antics. There’s plenty of subtext to read into, but Medak doesn’t leave time for reflection.
The story moves at breakneck speed, yet there is no real sense of the passage of time. Nor is there an overwhelming sense of Rice’s beloved New Orleans. The production and set design predominately feature immaculate interiors, but the little we see of Louisiana is set on generic plantations.
Performances run the gamut, as do the Creole accents, from melodramatic to regal. Gallagher is just awful as Philippe, uttering romance novel-caliber dialogue with all of the passion of a sponge.
Reuben spends most of the movie stone-faced as the despicable Cecil, while Ri’chard embodies Marcel’s youthful exuberance with a full range of exaggerated facial expressions. National treasures Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are always a joy to watch, outshining even James Earl Jones and Eartha Kitt in small but prominent roles.
Bianca Lawson is a wonderful find as Marcel’s love Anna Bella, but the standout perf is that of Jennifer Beals as Dolly Rose, a prostitute who turns out to be more compassionate and maternal than Cecil.
Rich in color and texture, mini features first-rate technical credits.