“Placage promised happiness, but brought only…sorrow.” These words are spoken by a character in the 2001 Showtime miniseries “The Feast of All Saints”. The film, based on the 1979 book by Anne Rice of the same title, is set in New Orleans during the 1840’s, where the aformentioned practice of “placage”, or the (usually) extra-marrital relationships between ‘free’ women of color and wealthy white men, is the norm.
The practice of placage, which is really just a fancy, French word (and if we’re taught anything, it’s that everything is better if it’s fancy and French) for the romantic notion of the exploitation of women of color, is a practice of sexual, social and racial inequity so obvious, that it makes one wonder how could it produce anything but sorrow and pain. The ‘not quite master, not quite slave’ characteristics of the rituals of placage set up a power imbalance so fierce that often the only to way to maintain a life outside of the fields, was to be be born ‘free’ with light skin and good hair and hope to be acquired by the richest white man down the road.
However, this film wants the viewer to believe that the black women, or “octaroons” of the “Gens de Coleur Libre” held such power and sway that they not only secured financially beneficial arrangements for themselves, but for any children born of the relationship. This power, or bizarre kind of leverage, seems to come from the idea that their blackness or exotic sexuality was enough to keep the wealthy white men of the time spellbound sufficient to keep these arrangements intact for years as a second, unacknowledged, mixed family would emerge into high society with all its trappings.
The film focuses on one of the families created by one of these unions and the problems one would imagine to be rife in such a situation.
We are introduced to Cecile St. Marie and Monsieur Farronaire, played by the completely mismatched and chemistry-less Gloria Reuben and Peter Gallagher, and subsequently to their offspring, Marcel and Marie, played by Robert Ri’chard and Nicole Lyn. We are also introduced to another Farronaire offspring, Lisette; the product of the actual slave/master relationship between Farronaire and his slave, Zazu, although the film does not make this clear at first. Into this motley crew are thrown the various characters that round out the New Orleans of the pre-Civil War era and provide the backdrop for the film.
The central theme to the comings and goings of the Gens de Colour Libre, seems to be the idea that they are simply better than other blacks, by virtue of their whiteness and how removed from slavery they are. In fact, the character of Marcel, played as an older man by James Earl Jones, relates that he, indeed, thought the Gens de Colour Libre were “different” and “better” than those he was surrounded by and it is only age and wisdom that forces him to see the shame in his prior thoughts.
Also problematic for the Gens de Colour Libre in this set up, is the gender inequality that purports to educate the young men produced by placage and to simply turn out into prostitution any females born into it. When beautiful, very white looking Marie St. Marie (neither she nor her brother were given their father’s name) comes of age, she is pressured and almost forced by her own mother, Cecile, into the same life that has made her a “whore” in Marie’s mind and left her totally unable to care for herself. So naturally, because a story like this can’t NOT have an ultra tragic mulatta, the only outcome for Marie is to be raped by five white men in a revenge trap set by her slave sister who envies not only her white skin, but her place in society.
We are left with a story full of characters who find that if they somewhat retain their blackness and wear the mask of their freedom, freedom traded in the whiteness of their flesh and do not pass into white society (although a trip to France is totally acceptable), they might find happiness, but it’s highly unlikely.