Slavery's children

A beloved ghost story comes to the screen.

I honestly wanted to be blown away. Not just because most of the stars are black, but because this is the first of her novels Toni Morrison has allowed to be translated to the screen. Because this is supposed to be the best that the richest black female entertainer in America, Oprah Winfrey, has to offer. Because she shopped the film around for 10 years before finally getting it made. Because she brought in director Jonathan Demme, who made a documentary on Nelson Mandela; black film veterans Danny Glover and Beah Richards; talented actresses like Thandie Newton and screen-stealing newcomer Kimberly Elise. Because Sweet Honey in the Rock consulted on the music. Because rising-star Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat amens right along with the rest of the women gathered in the pivotal cleansing scene. But none of it brings this three-hour, painstakingly wrought, dialogue-straight-from-the-book film within glancing distance of the novel's transcendent, otherworldly quality.

Beloved

directed by Jonathon Demme

starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover

starts Friday at Oak Tree, others

The day I picked up Toni Morrison's latest novel in early summer of 1987, I was just another overeducated African-American reader, content to have in my hands pages and a binding that might entertain me, maybe teach me a little something, make me feel good or righteous about being black and being human. The Wednesday I opened it, I read it through to the very last word, "Beloved." I could not move or make a sound until Friday evening. No theatrics on my part. I just didn't want to leave behind the place where Morrison had taken me, or the sheer power of what the novel made me see and remember about me, my people, and what I have to do next.

The day I read Beloved was the day I became convinced Morrison's was the ancient voice sent from the other side by the ancestors to help us deal, make it through, survive. I loved Morrison's Sula like I loved my best friend. The Bluest Eye made me cry for all the little girls who learn the white world thinks them ugly. Song of Solomon helped me to hold the brothers with both hands. But Beloved, Beloved touched so much more.

Beloved was inspired, Morrison says, by the real-life escape of a slave woman. Sethe is mother to four small children: Howard, Bugler, a "crawling-already" baby (Beloved), and newborn girl named Denver. Sethe has seen her mother lynched, lost her husband in the fury and flurry of escape, endured public suckling by two grown white men who "took her milk" while she was pregnant and then lashed a tree of whip scars on her back. When the slavers find Sethe after she's escaped across Ohio River, she refuses to let them take her or her family back alive. She grabs her children whom she loves more dearly than life, intending to kill them and herself. She just has time to slash the throat of her "Beloved" baby before the slavers reach her. At the sight of the mayhem, even the slavers are too disgusted to take the deranged Sethe into custody.

Years later, Beloved rises and walks through the river bed as a beautiful, lonely, sweet-hungry young female demon. Her spirit haunts Sethe's house until finally a flesh 'n' blood Beloved arrives intent on whipping her mother into madness.

With a plot like that it's no wonder Oprah asked and asked until the reluctant Morrison sold her the film rights. The Nobel laureate feared for the integrity of her characters, and rightly so. Like the film's score whose parts are beautiful, but whose six-note motif is too often superimposed as one continuous dirge, the film sputters and plods between saving moments.

It's not the acting: Danny Glover's Paul D holds the film to its course like some bass note that's found a solid hymn. Given that the film doesn't find time to explain anything of the slaves' distinction as men in an antebellum society that sees them as boys or animals, Glover does wonders with what's given him. It can truthfully be said of Kimberly Elise as Denver—the teenage daughter who is forced to mother her mother, Sethe, in the face of the Beloved demon's antics—that she steals the film's second half.

Insistent as she was on playing the lead, Oprah's portrayal of Sethe is amazingly monotone. Morrison, who served as a consultant to the film, describes Sethe as an unflinchingly strong woman with an "iron" spine. I found myself wondering at the literal interpretation offered by America's most influential black woman. The younger Sethe, played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, provides a spark that Oprah might have done well to mirror.

Thandie Newton, whose portrayal of Beloved Morrison has called "disquieting," is strikingly beautiful. But her physical affectations seem too familiar for an old spirit with an infant's knowledge of the body. Newton's interpretation misses the altogether alien movement of a spirit that has been among people as a haunt, but has never walked, talked, or eaten with a fork as a living being. The problem seems less with the actor than with the chosen material, the weight placed on one sequence over another.

It's infuriating that the filmmakers preferred to focus on two turtles mating and an abundance of unpeopled nature scenes rather than on finding experimental ways to depict the context and the surreal feeling of the story. The very real post­Civil War migration of newly "freed" African Americans, for instance, the fact that Beloved could have legitimately been one of the thousands of young women who literally had no place to go, gets underplayed.

For years I've half-heard the admonition: Some stories simply can't be told in film. There can never be a complete Sethe (like the one who kept me reaching and growing for three days) named Oprah Winfrey, or Alfre Woodard, or even Angela Bassett. Some characters are just too big, too important, too personal to be reduced to one face, one persona, one vision, one documentation by one mainstream film.

I'm not suggesting anybody dismiss the movie entirely. The scenes that depict slavery's brutality are so graphic they make you want to puke, hold somebody—anybody—accountable, scream in sheer imagined agony. But the violence depicted here, the haunted Halloween hallway bathed in blood-red light, even the soul-scouring redemption that is Sethe's reward for living through hell on earth—this is not the sum, the heart, or even the gist of Beloved, the novel.

Make no mistake, for every Beloved viewer whose psyche is indelibly branded with the violence of slavery's brutality, there's another who knows that a bit of the beauty and solace of an exquisite work of art has been lost in this translation and cannot be regained. It's a tradeoff that makes me ask, Why did Beloved's makers render the story so literally that single lines and single visions are emphasized and the whole gets as skewed, lost, left out, and misrepresented as our 400-year existence in African America? Why couldn't they leave our heroes standing? To call upon Zora Neale Hurston, spirits—like those of Sethe, Paul D, and Denver—are "that which the [African-American] soul lives by." Why take away our soul food and so deprive the hungriest among us? Why the hell wasn't I blown away?

 
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