JET (January 24, 2000)
Portrays A Heroic Woman Who Battles Racism And Religious Politics In Cable TV Movie ´The Courage To Love´
Versatile actress Vanessa L. Williams delivers a touching, heartwarming performance in the new movie The Courage To Love, which airs Monday, Jan.24 on the Lifetime cable network (9 p.m. ET).
The film also marks the first time that Williams served as an executive producer of a TV movie.
Inspired by a true story, Williams stars as Henriette Delille, a heroic woman who fearlessly battles racism and religious politics before the Civil War in New Orleans.
Delille is the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, an international order of nuns dedicated to serving the poor and elderly. Her devotion and life work continues to inspire today. In 1989, she became the first woman of African-American descent in the United States to have her cause for canonization officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Courage To Love also stars Diahann Carroll as Delille's mother, Pouponne; Stacy Keach as Delille's White father, Jean-Baptiste; Gil Bellows as Delille's French love interest, Dr. Gerard Gaultier, and Cynda Williams as Delille's sister, Cecelia.
The film depicts a chapter in American history before the Civil War in New Orleans when the French outnumbered the Americans, and when free people of color enjoyed many privileges of White society.
During an annual lavish gala called the "Quadroon Ball," wealthy French and Spanish men meet and become involved with young Black women from multiracial backgrounds. Although the interracial couples are accepted in society and they raise families together, they were forbidden to marry.
Williams' character rejects this racist tradition. Her mother (Carroll) worries about her daughter and warns her not to resist tradition. She urges her to participate in the "Quadroon Ball" to find herself a wealthy White man who will provide for her financially.
Instead, Delille turns to the Catholic Church to teach and to care for the poor and needy. She also teaches young slaves how to read and write. She becomes one of the first women of color to take an active part in the church's day-to-day activities. However, she is frustrated by the politics of the church and racism from both the church leaders as well as the wealthy White members of the congregation.
Williams describes this unusual period of history depicted in the film: "In New Orleans, and a little bit in Charleston, and possibly other cities in the South, there was a community of free Black people who had a chance to have legal rights, got a chance to live with money and were educated in France and were landowners also and also had slaves themselves," she explains.
"So you hear about Creole and the mixture of races and you know that Creole meant a melding of French and Black, but this is the exploration of how it actually happened."
She describes her character's determination not to follow tradition. "Her mother was a quadroon woman who was taken care of and her sister also lived the same life and she did not want to follow in the footsteps of her mother."
She says her character is very much a modern, courageous woman. "She had a vision, and against all odds, she fought for what she felt was right in her heart."
In the film, Delille is drawn to a wealthy White French doctor (Gil Bellows) who offers her love and a life in France where they can marry in peace. She must choose between the powerfill love of one man and a divine calling to serve the less fortunate through her work in church.
Explains Williams, "The Gerard love story is something that we fabricated to help create conflict and make a very romantic but also a distinct choice between the love for the church and what would have been the easy way out-a man who truly loved her and was going to take her away to a place where virtually she would have no problems and not have the conflict of being a colored woman in a society where she was not accepted."
Williams adds, "She could not marry because back in the day you could have concubines, but there were no Black and White marriages or no free people of color and White marriages. So she knew she could never be married, she knew it was against the church to be living together with somebody and not be married and morally she couldn't accept that, so she did not want that for herself or for the future of her children"
Carroll notes the universal appeal of the mother and daughter relationship. "The fact that these two women are highly emotionally involved with each other yet, disagreeing on the most basic principles of life, morality, character, we can all relate to."
She adds, "I think that's one of the things that attracted me to the project is that it's really a timeless piece. It's the comments about relationship. In particular, the relationship between the mother and the daughter, and I relate to that completely having my own relationship with my daughter."
Bellows says there are several messages in the film. "One of them is follow your heart. Even though that might cause problems in the short term, in the long run, the benefits will far outweigh them. It doesn't mean it will [be] without sacrifice. Sacrifice is definitely a part of going with your heart, and I think the story illustrates that very well."
The multitalented performer also served as an executive producer of "The Courage To Love"