A well-intentioned television movie based on the remarkable life of Henriette Delille (1813-1862), an African American feminist, social worker and religious leader who challenged conventions in 19th century Louisiana, "The Courage to Love" is so obsessed with its glossy look and attention to detail that it often forgets to move its plodding plot forward.
The story chronicles the emancipation of Delille, a free woman of color with enough insight to challenge the still existing racial barriers in her native New Orleans. Although she is briefly tempted to follow a more conventional path, Delille (Vanessa Williams) ends up throwing caution to the wind, devoting her life to the poor and the needy, and eventually co-founding one of the first orders of African American Catholic nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family.
Perhaps burdened by the sweeping historical narrative at hand, director Kari Scogland has allowed the production design to become the show's undisputed protagonist. Viewers who rejoice at the sight of colorful characters walking around in period costumes will find plenty of pretty pictures to look at.
Unfortunately, gorgeous shots of diffused light coming through windows and highly textured pastel colors do not a compelling narrative make. Only a few moments of unusual substance hint at the picture that could have been. The scene in which Delille meets and falls in love with a handsome young doctor (Gil Bellows) at a lavish ball, for instance, has the sensuous luster of a classic historical novel.
Bringing to life such a complex, multilayered character might have been too much of a challenge for Williams, who also acts as one of the film's executive producers. Although she is clearly inspired by the richness of her role, her portrayal leaves you pining for a more passionate expression of Delille's burning spirituality.
"The Courage to Love" can be seen tonight at 9 on Lifetime.