Oprah Winfrey isn’t the best thing about Beloved, a viscerally moving film whose deep and original vision builds from the foundation of Toni Morrison’s novel. Nonetheless, Winfrey’s involvement, both as star and through her production company Harpo Films, makes her the architect of its greatest accomplishment. Winfrey’s presence legitimized the film as authentic black self-expression, which took away the onus of hiring a white male urbanite, Jonathan Demme, to direct this story about rural black women.
And make no mistake: Jonathan Demme’s startling and beautiful interpretation of the story is the best thing about Beloved. He infuses it with themes that arise from potent images, and he transforms strands of meaning only suggested in the script into rich veins of cinematic emotion. If he couldn’t mine greatness from every script page, then at least he constructs a space where Morrison’s genius can flower on the screen, fertilized by his reimagination of the boundary lines between life and death, human and animal, present and past.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe (Winfrey), a former slave who escaped from Kentucky to Ohio with her children but without her husband. After she moves into her mother-in-law’s home on the outskirts of Cincinnati, a series of deaths rocks the household, and an angry spirit plagues the house with poltergeist-like manifestations, driving Sethe’s two sons away. In 1873, as the movie’s main action begins, one of Sethe’s Kentucky acquaintances shows up on her doorstep and finds her living with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) in virtual isolation from the community that passes daily outside their door. Paul D. (Danny Glover) moves in and finds work, but the family’s relative stability is soon disrupted by a strange visitor, a young woman who can barely speak or walk but who calls herself “Beloved.” Her arrival at first delights the friendless Denver, but gradually it becomes clear that the stranger has crossed a greater divide than the Ohio River on her journey to Sethe’s home.
It takes almost three hours to tell the whole story of Beloved’s nature and the significance of her visitation, and in some ways the movie’s unusual length is appropriate. Beloved moves all its characters through big changes, and it’s necessary to develop their starting points in this drama deliberately. Otherwise, their subsequent journey might seem arbitrary.
But a feature-length movie, even a long one, can’t take a novel’s care in this regard. That’s where Demme’s command of cinematic shorthand works wonders. At one point, Demme compresses the arduous task of stage-setting and characterization into a series of short, incidental scenes that show the family’s new routine after Beloved’s arrival. This techniquescenes of 30 to 60 seconds separated by quick fades to blackapproaches cinematic pointillism, and it rapidly conveys the fluidity of the family’s dynamics under unusual stress.
However, such innovation can only be a transitional device, moving us from the pre- to the post-Beloved situation. Before and after these riveting, rhythmic moments, the movie sometimes bogs down in more traditional expository scenes. Sethe and Paul D. have slow, tortuous conversations, which are serious, full of stagy pauses, and unrealistically revelatory. The one quality of Beloved that needs improvement is its attachment to heartrending and tragic monologues. Not only would stoic understatement be more effective, it would also ring truer for these characters, who have survived by putting their pain in the past.
Whether conscious forgetting is a good strategy for dealing with the inconceivable brutality of Sethe’s slave days, however, becomes a key issue in the film. Sethe is determined, at all costs, to protect her daughter from the life she fled 18 years before, and the film echoes her consistent denial by refusing to give its audience backstory. Names, places, and events are thrown around for two hours of screen time before Sethe and the script break down and tell us who and what they areand what happened to them. My screening was full of whispers as people asked each other what these cryptic references were all about, afraid they’d missed something. Be patient: Beloved structurally reenacts Sethe’s defense against her unbearable past until at last she is forced to tear down that final wall.
Beloved argues that the dividing line between past and present is artificial, a human construct. So, too, with the dividing line between civilization and nature. Demme picks up on two clues in the movie’s scripta slaveholder’s discourse on the animal nature of blacks, also a stump preacher’s admonition to black folks to love their own fleshand conceives a radical connection between the natural world and human society. So close are the two, the director suggests, that the dead can reenter the human sphere by traveling through the forms of life that emerge from the earth where they are buried. From the grave to the grass to the insects to human fleshreal, solid, black fleshis a conceivable route back to life in the continuity Demme envisions. Tak Fujimoto’s elegiac, starkly sensual images of butterflies, foxes, water, and tree leaves reinforce this beautiful reversal of the slaveholder’s accusation. “Animal” is no longer an insult, and the love of flesh, for all its dangers, becomes the purest form of spirituality.
Demme has been working below his potential in the past decade, although he has been rewarded by Oscar voters for high-profile films like The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. With Beloved, his keen eye and philosophical mind return with a breadth of vision that reinforces the novel’s best insights. Yet his persuasion is so quiet, and his humanistic concern for his actors (especially Kimberly Elise in her triumphant third-act maturation) so great, that audiences may leave Beloved without any awareness that a hand other than Winfrey’s is guiding the camera lens. In a sense, they’re right: Winfrey has guided attention away from the director in the best possible manner, leaving him free to tap the naked power of cinema to create and connect.
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace