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For more film reviews by Alan Stone, click here or choose from a list of

Oprah's Nightmare


Beloved suffers from its own artistic pretensions.


Alan A. Stone

 

Oprah Winfrey wanted Beloved to be an experience, not just entertainment. The film, like Toni Morrison's novel, was meant to answer the question, what was it like to be a slave? In answering it, Morrison makes her readers feel, perhaps for the first time, the extraordinary psychological damage done by slavery. There is, says one of her characters, "a kind of madness that keeps one from going mad." Those different forms of madness, Morrison tells us, were the only choices for a people whose loved ones had: "run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized." I cannot say whether Beloved is the definitive novel about slavery, but it is certainly, in its own strange way, the most psychologically compelling account I have ever read.

If we locate Toni Morrison in the western canon, she belongs with the Virginia Woolf of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse: an omniscient narrator who is also inside the minds of her characters, seeing the world as each of them does, and reproducing their separate streams of consciousness. She moves from prose to poetry, as Woolf did in To The Lighthouse, and works in a language that gives simple words new meanings and speaks with immediacy and nuance. Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway to break through the crust that had formed over England's painful memories after the slaughter of its young men in World War I. Toni Morrison is even more ambitious: she wrote Beloved to break through centuries of dead history and bring the holocaust of slavery (she dedicates her book to the 60 million and more) back into living memory.

To tell the story of slavery, Morrison plunges her readers into the nightmare of 124 Bluestone Road, a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati in 1872 that is haunted by a baby girl who was killed to save her from slavery. The novel begins: "124 was spiteful, full of a baby's venom." Building on the convention of the haunted house, Morrison constructs the inner world of a slave tortured by her past. Her heroine Sethe, who killed her baby, is in today's jargon a "survivor" who has chosen denial: the madness that keeps her from going mad. Out of that denial the "haint" is all that remains of a past too painful for her "rememory." And the venom of this "haint" is poisoning Sethe, her family, and anyone else who enters the house at Bluestone Road.

Slavery is the worst nightmare of American history, and Morrison has allowed her readers to experience that nightmare from inside the mind of a woman who lived it. Morrison expects readers to do more than walk in Sethe's shoes; she asks them to inhabit Sethe's nightmare, where the categories of reason and normal understanding have been broken into pieces.

Much more than one woman's story, Beloved is filled with powerful glimpses of historical reality, and hints of indescribably horrible atrocities. Bringing her chisel of truth to every stereotype in white America's collective unconscious, Morrison unerringly finds her way to the scarred human soul of the black slave. She tells us that blacks are still in the jungle, and it is still growing. Not the "livable" one they brought with them, but "the jungle white folks planted in them." And her novel seems to prove this terrible judgment. The most hopeful figure in the novel, Baby Suggs, goes to her death with these words: "there was no bad luck in the world but white people." And if one has the mental picture of the good-natured Aunt Jemima, willing wet nurse to the white infant, here Sethe's deepest grievance is that the white boys "stole her milk." She wears a tree of scars on her back from protesting that experience, and her husband, Halle, was driven mad as he watched helplessly.

Sethe and her "haint" Beloved are the knot at the center of the story, but it is in weaving together the "rememories" of all the other characters that Morrison makes us feel the full horror of slavery and its aftermath. Beloved is not an easy book to read, either in substance or style, but the reader finds in it unmistakable human truth which is one sure measure of great literature. Oprah Winfrey wanted her audience to experience this truth. Like Sethe (whom she plays), Oprah is a survivor, and the film is the culmination of ten years of ambitious planning and three years of filming.

Judging by box office receipts, the movie-going public was not up to the challenge. They wanted entertainment, not a three-hour experience. At the bottom line, the result would have been a red ink quarter for Disney studios, had it not been for Adam Sandler's brain-dead Waterboy. Moreover, while Beloved was a succes d'estime when it opened, Hollywood pundits have already declared it out of the running for an Oscar (despite a weak field dominated by Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan). It would be easy to put the troubles with the box office and Oscar voters down to the great racial divide in America, but young African-Americans have not been flocking to theaters to see Beloved.

To be sure, commercial success and critical acclaim are not the only measures of creative achievement. But the fact is that Beloved suffers, in the first instance, from its own artistic pretensions and limitations.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Louis Menand recently skewered Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for its lack of artistic ambition. Ironically, the qualities that Menand identified as Spielberg's artistic failings might have helped Beloved reach a wider audience and garner more Oscar votes. Menand's somewhat snide assessment was that Spielberg's films are all "like life only with better lighting"; "the images never imitate confusion by being confused"; they have "more clarity than actual reality." This highbrow criticism is right on target, but surely Spielberg's clarity is also one of the major sources of his box office success. Indeed, Menand's complaint is the standard line of avant-garde critics and filmmakers. Peter Greenaway offered the same critique of all mainstream film when he spoke at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts last year. The ambition of filmmakers at the beginning of this century was to create a unique new visual art form. But despite promising starts, as Fellini lamented in 8, film is far from avant-garde, and commercial films have caved in to the demands of narrative. The great commercial filmmakers are great storytellers, and their cinematography helps tell the story.

The cinematography of Saving Private Ryan gives audiences the sense that they are seeing something no one has ever seen before-at least never so clearly. We may be witnessing a nightmare but never through the bewildered and terrified eyes of the dreamer; we all have the best seat in the house to watch the invasion of Normandy. Menand, who usually views films at private screenings, was apparently surprised by the vocal and emotional reactions of the packed public audience with whom he saw Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg would not be surprised. He wants his audience to have the collective experience that the great Italian film Cinema Paradiso celebrated, and he knows you cannot achieve this if you get too artistic and confuse your audience.

Beloved begins in such confusion, and sustains it throughout. Perhaps Jonathan Demme was awestruck by Morrison's novel and by being the white man chosen by Oprah to direct this African-American opus. Whatever the explanation, he seems to have forgotten that most of his audience would have no knowledge of the novel or its characters. Instead of identifying Sethe, her sons, her daughter, her mother-in-law, and the family dog, the opening collage projects mentally indigestible images: Is that Oprah hitting the poor dog on the head with a hammer and pushing its eyeballs back into the sockets? Are the little boys her sons? Is the elderly lady her mother? It is a mystery. Although the details of this opening montage are all in the novel and the audience will eventually come to understand some of them, the opening is disorienting. Moreover, after this puzzling beginning, Demme serves up Thandie Newton in the role of Beloved. Her crazed Stanislavskian performance keeps most of the audience emotionally confused for the next two-and-a-half hours.

Demme seems more intent on capturing the artistic style of the novel than its substance, but he fails even in that. The screenplay adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway proved that the Virginia Woolf-Toni Morrison style can be successfully translated onto the screen. Three different writers are credited with the Beloved screenplay. Demme adapted what they wrote, and no doubt the film editor labored over the narrative structure as well. But they sacrificed clarity to aesthetic high-mindedness throughout.

John Demme is a successful, intelligent, and committed filmmaker. His documentaries about Haiti testify to his moral ambition. Mega-hits like the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia proved that he knows, almost as well as Spielberg, how to play audiences and give Hollywood's Oscar voters what they want. Even he now seems to recognize that his Beloved is too difficult. More than that, Beloved is brutal, obscure, and, in the end, defeats its own ambition. What went wrong?

I saw the film when it first opened in Harvard Square to a packed theater. But the audience was not having a Cinema Paradiso experience (no one in the restless audience talked back to the screen). Ten minutes into the film, I began to hear audible groans from my two companions, who subsequently predicted Beloved's demise at the box office. They hated the film: they could not follow it, and it seemed to have very little to do with slavery. Baffled by the narrative and put off by Thandie Newton's performance, they, like most filmgoers, missed the experience that Oprah wanted them to have. Chacun à son gout, but in the case of Beloved I think their gout is both typical and instructive.

If you have just read the novel or have a native ability to grasp associative links as narrative structure, it is possible to follow the film. The second time I saw Beloved, having just reread the novel, I finally understood what Demme was trying to do. From the novel's rich tapestry, Demme chose the red thread of the supernatural and let Beloved dominate the film. But in the novel, Beloved is as much metaphor as character. And although the film does show us Sethe killing Beloved because the slave owner has come to take her whole family back into slavery, the film barely touches on the conditions of slavery that led Sethe to this desperate measure. We do see the moment when Sethe's mother was hung, but given the style of the film, the hanging itself seems a supernatural event, a satanic ritual, rather than an instance of the human cruelty that defined slavery. The film's flashbacks and transitions also emphasize the supernatural; but in Morrison's novel, the supernatural is a lens that allows us to see the reality of slavery. Demme, perhaps unintentionally, transformed Morrison's Beloved into a Stephen King ghost story about the healing of a dysfunctional family.

Sethe and her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) live locked in the struggle with the bitter spirit of Beloved. The spiteful haunt has driven her two older brothers out of the house and turned Sethe's freedom into another bondage. Sethe's relationship with Paul D (Danny Glover)-a man who fancied Sethe in an earlier day but kept his distance out of respect for her husband-restores her capacity to feel and breaks the hold of the haunted house. But Beloved returns again from the grave (or perhaps from hell), this time in the body of a beautiful woman who is the age the dead baby would have been had she lived. Eventually she destroys Sethe's newfound happiness. Like a medieval succubus, she forces herself on Paul D and becomes pregnant, driving him away from 124 and pushing her mother into the other kind of madness.

A crazed Sethe is rescued by the community of African-American women who exorcise the pregnant demon. The scene is unforgettable as the congregation of women march down Bluestone Road and begin to sing and pray their way through the shock of seeing Beloved naked, her abdomen swollen with child. They hold up their crosses and Beloved disappears, sent back to the other place. Paul D returns to the shattered Sethe who laments that Beloved was her "best thing," to which he responds: "Sethe you are your best thing." Sethe, as played by Oprah, is at least one of the better things in this film, and-along with Glover-gives a restrained and moving performance.

Unfortunately, Thandie Newton's bravura performance as Beloved overwhelms them. The daughter of a Zimbabwean mother and British father, Newton was educated at Cambridge, and appeared in her first film at 16. She is a striking young woman and a seasoned actress. Her role, as she understood it, was to portray the spirit of a spiteful infant who has returned in the form of a beautiful woman. The audience first sees her wearing a rather elegant dress and dragging herself through a brook. If you have not read the novel, you will not understand that this Ophelia-like creature is Beloved, the ghost now in human form. In a surreal and frightening moment (not in the novel) she is covered with insects, and then appears at 124. As she develops her character Newton sometimes will look as though she is afflicted with cerebral palsy: her lower jaw is contorted to one side and she drools. At other times she seems mentally retarded or deranged. Thandie Newton's Beloved dominates every scene in which she appears. But rather than providing a lens through which we can see the reality of slavery, she distorts everyone and everything in the film. She is meant to be Sethe's madness, but there is far too much "method" in Thandie Newton's madness and far too much Thandie Newton in this film.

Indeed, Beah Richards as Baby Suggs, Holy gives us the best acting and best scene in the film. Thirty years ago Richards was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Sidney Poitier's mother in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In Beloved she is radiant (as the voice of Toni Morrison?), calling her people to love their children's laughter, their own hands, their own hearts, and their own flesh, which the white folks do not love. In this scene, we can sense that slavery has taught her people to despise themselves and each other. Baby Suggs is holy, because she calls these people not to a Promised Land but to a moment of self-affirmation and community. Unfortunately, Demme's supernaturalist rendering gives only a supporting role to Baby Suggs and the community of women who survived slavery and marched down Bluestone Road to save Sethe.

Hollywood insiders are already pointing to Beloved as proof that major pictures that deal with race are losers. Oprah has a huge following and Disney has the best advertising-promotion capacity in Hollywood; yet together they couldn't get people into the theaters. But this movie was hobbled by creative pretensions, not subject matter. The racial divide left by slavery is still our greatest problem. Before Hollywood's major players decide to give up on this subject, they should remember how Americans huddled around their small screens to watch Roots. Film is our culture's most powerful medium. It ought to be able, simultaneously, to do good and do well.

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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