Coffee Rhetoric

July 20, 2018

Chaos is a Ladder: A Look at Margaret Wells & Harriet Lennox of Hulu’s ‘Harlots’

Survival of the fittest and examining the tenuous relationship between Black women and white women

The Handmaid’s Tale (which just wrapped up a roiling second season) isn’t the only series currently streaming on Hulu dealing with the oppression of women and the disturbing, violent effects of patriarchy. Currently in the beginning stages of its second season, Harlots presents a fascinating story set in 1760s London, England about brothels and the bawds that run them, the lives (and heaving bosoms) of sex workers, the debaucheries and dangerous predilections of culls, and the machinations of the people at the top of the socio-economic ladder as well as those trying to navigate around their respective social positions at the bottom of it. Their sexploits and performances are often reviewed in an annual underground directory of sex workers called Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Harlots—which is written, directed, and produced entirely by women—is also unlike any historical series currently being featured on TV. For a period-drama that takes place during London’s 18th-century Georgian era, the cast is diverse, and the showrunners don’t shy away from delving into issues of race, capitalism, class, consent, and gender.

“This city is made of our flesh, every beam, every brick. We’ll have our piece of it.”

To offer some insight into the show and the relationships between just a few of the characters, Harlots is about two feuding brothels, one run by Lydia Quigley (played by Lesley Manville) who runs a high-class house that caters to the noble, judicial, and extremely wealthy members of Georgian Society. Lydia Quigley (who shares a tumultuous history with her rival, Margaret Wells) has done some truly repugnant things to sate the desires of her elite clientele and so, knows all their darkest and ugliest secrets and isn’t above using them to leverage opportunities for herself.

Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), who was previously in Lydia’s employ (sold to her by her mother, at the age of 10, for a pair of shoes) before they fell out on bad terms, runs a bawdy house on the lower-end of town that mostly caters to the working and middle classes and who’s looking to improve her circumstances by opening a brothel in an upscale part of town in hopes of securing a more desirable list of clients. While Margaret is less skeevy than her former employer she is no less problematic and pimps her own daughters out, having sold her oldest daughter to a love-sick baron and her younger, inexperienced, and reluctant daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder. Keeping with the time, Harlots’ Black characters are at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum of the class hierarchy but also have the most compelling story arcs on the series. William North (Danny Sapani) is a free Black British man and one of the more tolerable male characters. He is Margaret’s partner in love and business and shares a young biracial son with her named Jacob, whom Margaret can’t fathom ever being in a position of servitude to rich white people.

“By George, a Black Venus”

Harriet Lenox Harlots
Harriet Lennox (played by Pippa Bennett-Warner) has one of the more intriguing stories on the show. Educated by her slave master, Nathaniel Lennox (who acts as her husband and is Margaret’s former lover), and brought to London from his plantation in America, Harriet has two illegitimate biracial children with Nathaniel. Harriet first meets Margaret’s acquaintance when she answers the door and Margaret—who’s there to meet with Nathaniel to catch up and hopefully secure a loan to open a brothel in a more desirable part of town—greets her with, “Is your master in?” setting up the dynamic of their tense relationship. 

Insulted and aware of Margaret’s place in Nathaniel’s past, Harriet quickly establishes her role. “I am the mistress of this house,” she says defiantly.

Even though she is in an established interracial relationship herself that was cultivated under different circumstances, Margaret is taken aback and presses, “I must have the wrong door. I’m looking for Nathaniel Lennox.”

Mr. Lennox is my husband,” Harriet challenges.

Harriet later warms-up a bit after Margaret points out their shared roles as mothers to biracial children when she notices Harriet’s in the room, “Lovely children you have. I have a boy just like.”
Nathaniel dies shortly after returning to London, however. And as was par for the course for white slave masters, passes away never having completed the paperwork to legally free Harriet, making her and their children the property of Nathaniel's douchebag older son by his first legal white wife.
After Harriet is put out onto the street without her children (who are under the threat of being sold into slavery in America), Margaret offers her a job at the brothel to help Harriet earn money to buy her children back, first as a housekeeper then, eventually, as a prostitute making her debut during Margaret’s much buzzed about bacchanalian social. To stand out and make fast money, Harriet quickly brands herself as an exotic other and ends up becoming a popular and oft-requested favorite among Margaret’s customers. But the underlying tension between the two women still seems like a powder keg waiting to explode due to the power dynamics of their relationship. Despite Margaret’s own class status and liberal views, she still exerts authority over Harriet and sets up a dynamic where Harriet is enacting labor for her.

Harriet and Margaret’s relationship stands out to me because, though she was initially repulsed by the idea, Harriet uses sex work to not only survive and win back her children but to seemingly empower herself and to take back whatever semblance of bodily autonomy she can as a formerly enslaved Black woman consenting to sex. 

William—having been born a free Black man in London—and Harriet develop somewhat of an understanding with one another…their experiences as two Black people and his empathy for Harriet’s predicament. William helps her fight for her children against Margaret’s wishes. It becomes a point of contention in his and Margaret's relationship and Margaret starts to resent Harriet.

November 21, 2017

Believing Black Women and Unpacking White Female Rage

Briana Brochu (mughshot via W. Hartford PD); Chennel "Jazzy" Rowe via Facebook
Despite the strained smiles, relative civility, and occasional unlikely friendships (many of which come with a lot of emotional labor on Black women’s end and reluctant privilege unpacking on white women’s), the relationship between white women and Black women has long been a powder keg waiting to explode beyond the tension that has festered since the domestic slave trade; since the suffrage movement that found suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton maligning Black women suffragists and activists and let it be known their white interests were far more important than the civil and voting rights of Black people; since 1957 when Hazel Bryan Massery was photographed yelling epithets at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine; since the 60s when many other angry white women were memorialized in photos cursing and hurling insults at Black students integrating schools in Montgomery; since the feminist movement during the 70s when white women, once again, expected Black women to labor on behalf of white women’s interests while erasing Black women’s lived experiences and needs from the conversation; since present-day when the story remains the same and #solidarityisforwhitewomen and they still refuse to grasp intersectional theory (as introduced and taught to the masses by scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw) or ascertain that Black women deal with both racism and sexism and that the two aren’t mutually exclusive for us, and only seem to rally around causes when an issue hits too close to home or if they can control and center themselves in the conversation.

October 23, 2017

From "Sugar Hill" to "Get Out": Celebrating Black Women in Horror Films

I'm a year-round horror movie fan but since Halloween is upon us, this macabre, candy-filled holiday wouldn't be complete without engaging in a marathon of 31 days of horror films. But when it comes to horror movies the Black guy being the first to die before we even get to delve into their characters is a common trope in a lot of movies. And even when there are strong Black male leads, we get taken on a perilous journey watching them fight to survive, only for viewers to have the rug snatched out from under them at the end. Though he cut an impressive lead character in George Romero’s seminal zombie flick Night of the Living Dead—the first time a Black actor was cast as the leading star in a horror film—who can forget what happened to Duane Jones’s character Ben at the end? And don’t get me started on the fate Eriq Ebouaney’s bad-guy character met towards the end of the French crooked cops-and-zombies flick La Horde.

The primary reason I enjoy watching horror films so much is that, despite the violence, blood, and gore saturating some flicks, horror is often imbued with social commentary on issues like race, immigration, misogyny, and even religious extremism. This year comedic actor and filmmaker Jordan Peele took the world on a tour de force with his timely race-based horror film Get Out, completely reinventing the genre’s wheel and offering up a no-frills approach to broaching the topic of casual liberal racism. In doing so, Peele also became the first Black filmmaker to helm the highest-grossing debut film based on an original screenplay. While Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya offered a compelling performance, one of the most unforgettable and complex characters was Georgina, played by actress Betty Gabriel. According to some Black film reviewers, Georgina symbolized many things and chief among them is the different intersections and mess Black women must navigate around for the sake of our livelihoods and survival, often at the cost of our well-being and lives.

In addition to Get Out's Georgina character, some of the most memorable horror movies I’ve ever seen featured strong Black female leads or supporting roles. In an industry that often pedestals white starlets and marginalizes and/or typecasts Black actresses, Black women have often found their niche in the horror genre, giving fans some of the most resourceful, unconventional, complex, badass, and even feminist characters. Black women aren’t always centered in horror movies and when they are, it’s to fill some tired Mystical Negress, sacrificial friend trope whose main function is to uphold the safety of white female protagonists at the risk of their own lives. So, I'm always delighted to watch a flick where one of the main characters is not only a Black woman but featured prominently and winning the fight to survive (in most of these cases, anyway) in the process.

Here is a list of films featuring Black women in horror films. Every character on this list may not have lasted until the end or played a primary role, but they left an indelible mark nonetheless…

[Content Warning: Clips and trailers contain strong language, adult situations, violence, and gore.]

July 21, 2017

Black People, Let’s Be More Cognizant of How We Engage Each Other

Black folks… We are resilient. We are resourceful. We ain’t never afraid. We exude self-confidence and love. And, as the children say, we are lit. In a word, we are everything and then some. And above everything else, we can be passionate with our beliefs and strong in our convictions. But sometimes, when it comes to how we consume information and how we debate with one another, that passion is often used to cudgel others into boxes they don’t want to be in, because of the way Black folks have been socialized. Whether we’re weighing in about rape culture, gender issues, the way to raise families, how masculinity should be performed, or something as mundane as how to make sweet potato pie, the way some of us provoke and critique arguments and each other can cause harm and does nothing to propel us towards social awareness, consciousness, or logical thinking.

Critical thinking isn’t a panacea to all the systematic and social ills or intra-racial concerns, but the way we unpack social issues, pop-culture, or any other human endeavor, says a lot about where we are cognitively and whether we’re good listeners who have the capacity to engage in civil disagreement and come away from the conversation accepting and respecting that not everyone lives the same way and share the same beliefs, or if we are just waiting for the opportunity to shout over someone in an attempt be right. When we engage opposing viewpoints, we must understand that it’s okay that the ways we’ve been socialized to think by our parents, grandparents and, even, the Black church are challenged. While Black folks—no matter where we’re from, how we’re raised, or our respective cultural traditions—share collective experiences, we aren’t a monolith and we don’t all share the same social mores and thought processes, and that’s also okay.