In her last film role as “Baby Suggs” in 1998’s Beloved, Beah Richards portrays the stalwart Negress prototype with the fortune of a homestead gifted to her by Good White Folks. Of course the fortune is an exchange for her decades of longsuffering as their servant or slave. However, a little-known Richards film documents another role that may have provided the elusive 40 acres to select Black women post-Reconstruction: mistress.
In the obscure HBO movie As Summers Die (1986), Richards plays with Bette Davis in one of Davis’s last quintessential Hag Cinema film roles. With a mostly White ensemble, they tell the story of “colored” woman Eliza Backus’s fight to keep 450 acres of Louisiana land she lives on. Between the two of them, they illuminate the essential but fraught alliance between Black women who served White men and White women who benefited from them.
Based on the book by Forrest Gump author Winston Groom, the film opens with Eliza’s daughter Priscilla played by a young CCH Pounder. Priscilla works as the maid to the underachieving attorney Willie Croft (Scott Glenn). Willie is a content, self-described “ambulance chaser.” Only because Priscilla begs does he intervene after another White man came to Eliza’s house offering $10,000 with a threat: leave or get put out. The man came as a representative of the Holt Family, one of the wealthiest in town. The Holts understand Eliza to own the land somewhat, but know there is little to no formal proof of her ownership. A younger Holt breaks down their plan to Willie: “You don’t buy a Negro off land… you just run him off.”
Willie’s lack of status and wealth makes him a more suitable advocate than other town attorneys who grovel to the family. His lesser means also make it controversial when he takes love interest in Whitsey, one of the lesser respected Holt women. Bette Davis plays Whitsey’s mother Hannah, an elder matriarch rumored to be in demented decline. Her brother Jonathan Holt is dead, and no part of his family’s quest to expand their empire through acquisition of Eliza’s property as well as other Mafioso-level deeds around town.
Everyone knows Eliza was Hannah’s cook for over 20 years. Few know Hannah’s brother Jonathan was Eliza’s lover. Their secret affair began when Eliza was a teenager and continued after he was married to a White society woman. The clandestine union yielded two of Eliza’s children, Jonathan’s lifetime guilt and his transfer of property to Eliza: an olive branch for ultimately abandoning his side family.
Beah Richards was once ancillary to confrontation with miscegenation in her most famous role in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, as mother to a Sidney Poitier character tasked with meeting his White fiance’s parents. In As Summers Die, Richards is the central figure of it. Eliza and Jonathan’s relationship would have occurred before the Supreme Court’s Loving vs. Virginia ruling in 1968, which extinguished all legal bans on intimate race-mixing marriages and relationships. HBO also made a film, the documentary The Loving Story, about the collapse of prohibitions for Black and White couples. It is critical to note those laws existed to primarily protect White women’s purity and status from access or vulnerability to apparent Black male hypersexual predation.
“Did he talk to you about love?”
Richards’ Eliza pauses slyly and asks: “What he gone say? Him being a White man and all, me being colored. Can’t say nothing about love.”
But Black women, for their acquisitions of White male partners, were no less safe or exonerated for the alleged audacious imposition on White female status. When Willie beseeches another town official to help stop the Holts from dispossessing Eliza, the official responds: “Time was when a nigger woman would jump on white man’s money…now she needs a lawyer to pick it up.” These informal contracts for White men’s covert care and conveniences offered to any nigger woman they loved has achieved a renaissance of conversation, recently in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s 2010 novel Wench and historian Sharony Green’s account of “fancy girls” in her 2015 scholarly text Remember Me to Miss Louisa.
Davis’s character Hannah and her daughter Whitsey are their own versions of a “nigger woman”: Whitsey has a reputation as a woman about town with publicized fondness for the “male member,” and Hannah is (supposedly) nuts. These character flaws account for the required roughing-up of their White female images necessary to align them with Eliza.
Ironically for a predominately White-cast film of the 80’s, As Summers Die gives voice to the enormous distrust between Black and White communities in America. The book’s author joins Southern writers like Harper Lee and Jonathan Odell (The Healing) in respect to documenting America’s racist history from the White imagination, experience and interpretation of it. 30 years ago, the film adaptation showed a Black woman’s expectation of a White man walking up to her porch is punitive or penal. When Richards learns Willie Croft is just her daughter’s boss she laughs: “I thought you was the law coming to get me.” This is a suspicion many Black people must still have today when Whites approach.
The film also shows Black people’s reluctance to part with their private documents has similar anti-trust origins, as well as meaning for makeshift Black community archives. After she reveals Jonathan Holt gave her the property and a paper to prove it, she shows Willie the crude handwritten map and note “Mr. Jonathan” gave her to establish her ownership over what was his property. Although Willie can use it to prove her property ownership at the courthouse, Eliza puts it back into the ornate bejeweled box Mr. Jonathan also gave her as well. This becomes her undoing later when it is stolen.
Despite Eliza’s story and plight spinning wheels for the entire film, Richards, branded with a scarlet letter, drops off after her initial introductory scene. This is so As Summers Die can careen into a tinkly piano soundtracked and sunset-laced commercial romance between Willie and Whitsey. As Whitsey, Jamie Lee Curtis slides into the elusive, brazen female archetype Davis made famous. Despite Willie catching her out with another man, it is clear she will find a happily-ever-after with the liberal do-gooder her wealthy family despises.
The film also buckles into yet another Hollywood version of the White counselor as Negro Savior, a theme found in such books and film adaptations as A Time to Kill and To Kill a Mockingbird. Through Eliza’s trials, literally and figuratively, Willie finds refreshment and new passion for his career in the surrounding Black community. In their homes and churches, he advises them on property rights and financial uplift as a result of Eliza’s unshown persecution. One of Eliza’s half-White children is now a respected teacher who gives Willie “street cred” to enter these Black spaces (Super Fly‘s Ron O’Neal is the son). When White thugs rob Eliza’s house for the home deed and torch it to intimidate her, we do not even see Eliza’s reaction to what had to be a grueling discovery. Instead, we see Willie anguished over the event and drowning his sorrows in booze.
Bette Davis’s Hannah becomes the sole source of redemption for this erasure of the Black woman’s narrative. As Hannah also drops off but returns in more scenes than Eliza, she confirms Eliza’s relationship with her brother and refuses to lie about it. Hannah and her daughter Whitsey refuse to follow the steps in the choreography of race, class, status and even age their time and place dictate for them. Because these women have money, they avoid the various stigmas and stonings reserved for poor White women and all Negresses. But they are not spared social, psychological and patriarchal abuses. Out of spite and sport, the Holt family requires Hannah to gain psychiatric clearance of mental competence just to testify to the truth of history as she knows it. She refuses.
By the time Richards returns in the ending courtroom drama, Davis holds the keys to the film’s suspense: will she emerge from her reclusive alleged spiral to madness in order to vouch for Eliza, or stand down and participate in the condemnation of a Black woman for being loved by a White man? In a Davis film, as she once elevated the haughty broad to the epic proportions of Wonder Woman, the answer should be obvious. Hannah may now walk in a wheelchair but she stands up to all male challenge she receives.
Eliza’s telling of her romance with Jonathan Holt shocks the courtroom not for its trite and common details (a boy handing her peaches, his “pretty” compliments and their first kiss). The insult is she is Black and Jonathan Holt is White. Courtroom observers and the family of “Mr. Jonathan” shudder and wince in denials he would ever “make love” to a Black woman. Richards is astonishingly coquettish and sexy in testifying to her past naughtiness. She exhibits not just liberation in her admission to what could not be revealed in her White love’s lifetime. She flaunts triumph, unapology and insistence on her desirability.
At one point, Croft asks: “Did he talk to you about love?” Richards’ Eliza pauses slyly and asks: “What he gone say? Him being a White man and all, me being colored. Can’t say nothing about love.” Hannah enters the courtroom, however, and says something about it. Her testimony shames her conniving family and, though not necessarily redeeming poor and unmarried Eliza in White eyes, leads to Eliza’s victory to keep her 450 acres.
Davis is the scene stealer in As Summers Die, where a Black woman’s story is the story- but that Black woman is rarely seen or heard (indeed, Richards is not even pictured on the film’s movie poster, VHS or DVDs, and Eliza’s character is absent from the book’s covers as well). Beah and Bette’s alliance extends beyond the narrative; it was a small miracle for not one, but two, senior women actresses to feature in a 1980’s TV movie. Together, they rise above a formulaic love story and White savior insistences to center a drama important for its truth and history about all women’s subjection to male members of their societies.
As Summers Die (1986), made for television HBO
Starring Scott Glenn, Jamie Lee Curtis, Beah Richards and Bette Davis with appearances by CCH Pounder and Ron O’Neal
Directed by Jean-Claude Tramont with a teleplay by Jeff Andrus and Michael De Guzman based on the novel by Winston Groom