Beloved (1998)


(director: Jonathan Demme; screenwriters: Adam Brooks/Richard LaGravenese/Akosua Busia; cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Carol Littleton; cast: Oprah Winfrey (Sethe), Danny Glover (Paul D), Thandie Newton(Beloved), Kimberly Elise (Denver), Beah Richards (Baby Suggs), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Younger Sethe), Albert Hall (Stamp Paid), Irma P. Hal (Ella), Carol Jean Lewis (Janey Wagon); Runtime: 174; Touchstone Pictures; 1998)


“… a film whose greatest weakness is that it’s too long.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An excruciatingly long (the film runs 174 minutes) adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s book, based on the true story of runaway slave Margaret Garner. The film version centers around the psychological problems a former single-parent slave named Sethe (Oprah) has, as she tries to live her life as a free person. I have not read the book but as others who read the book have commented, this is a very difficult work to bring to film because the author’s words are so literary imaginative. Such works have in the past resulted in poorly shot films, but that is not the case here. It should also be noted, that Toni Morrison has said that she is very pleased with the outcome of the film. Demme has sort of solved the literary problem by making this film into a ghost story, as the strong visualizations are used as metaphors for the inhumanity of slavery and the lasting impressions it stamps on the minds of the victims.

There can be no doubt of how brutal a system slavery is. Demme, by using images such as a dog having his eyes gauged out and subliminally invective flashbacks of slaves being hanged and whipped, is able to point out the psychological scars that remain upon the people who lived through this very dark period of America’s history. These racial scars are still with present day America as it wrestles with its past and the deep racial divisions it has created even if slavery and segregation are things of the past, but there is still a lingering racism that hasn’t yet been resolved.

The frightening and intense emotional mood this film sets is appropriate for the seriousness of the issues it brings to the table. The deprivation it causes in the country cannot be minimized in any degree. This is an honest picture, ever faithful to the book’s author and the subject matter. But there were definite flaws in this film that detracted from it; such as, the poor editing and pace of the film. For me, the worst flaw was that the first and middle parts of the film dragged on for too long.

What was emotionally moving about the film were its very striking visualizations, such as the use of the haunted house to make certain that slavery is understood as a haunting experience, something that stays with the people who experienced it; and, that its ills may be deemed permanent for those who can’t exorcize the demons slavery has thrust onto the land. The haunted house is scary; and, the apparition it induces of the baby that Sethe (Oprah) had killed rather than return her to slavery in Sweet Home, indicates how the hope for the Negro is in the new generation. The old can just hope to survive and be free. The ghost scenes in Sethe’s house were enough to scare away any company she might want to have, leaving her as a loner.

I was not crazy about the casting of Oprah in the major role of the film, she was certainly adequate for the part (there was a stoic strength about her that was needed in her performance, and she provided that), but she did not show a deep enough range of emotions that a more accomplished actress would have shown. When Danny Glover (Paul D.) was on the screen the film had an electricity to it, but when Oprah was on the screen without him the film lagged.

When reminiscing with Sethe about their slave days at Sweet Home, Paul D. has this great line to sum up his slave days: “It was not sweet and it was not home.”

The strength of the film lies in the energy it picks up in its final scenes as the story clearly came together, and all the images throughout the film began to add up and make sense. It was able to leave an indelible mark on the viewer that lasts long after seeing the film; in fact, the film gets better when you start thinking about it long after you have seen it.

The film opens, after showing the simple grave with only the word “Beloved” marked on it. Sethe is living in an old broken-down house in the outskirts of Cincinnatti, in 1873, eight years after the Civil War freed the slaves. She lives there with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly), her two sons having run away from this haunted house and sad life. Denver clings to Sethe, being too afraid to venture out of the immediate area of the house by herself. That she evolves as the story moves on and learns how to take care of herself, is one of the refreshing surprises that comes about. Kimberley’s performance is very gratifying, especially to see how she matures and grows up from her very weak stature in life. She becomes the real heroine of the story.

Sethe and Denver have learned to live with what they have, as seen by Paul D. (Glover) when he shows up unexpectedly at their house. He has not seen her since they escaped from slavery in Kentucky 18 years ago. He moves in and they become family, but the ghost in the house becomes agitated by this and it reappears in an otherworldly girl named Beloved (Thandie), who is taken into the house by Sethe. By having Beloved live with her Sethe’s contented life can no longer be and the bad memories resurface, as the ghost that is in Beloved is clearly the young girl Sethe once killed.

What unfolds is the coming to grips with the spectre of slavery and the misery it caused to Sethe, as she is forced to relive the sin she has done. There is no running away from the harm it does. Beloved’s performance is eerie and painstaking. It is gut-wrenching to watch how weird she behaves, drooling and stuffing food in her mouth like an animal, as Sethe doesn’t know how to reach her and love her, yet feels remorseful about her. She looks at her, as if she was her own daughter, so it is not surprising when she says that she would do the same thing again if she had to choose between slavery and a young girl’s life. One of the most powerful lines in the film is when the tender-skinned Beloved who would have been the same age as Sethe’s Beloved, if she were alive, says to her, “Why you have me? Why you leave me?”

The other powerful woman in the story is Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), who is Sethe’s mother-in-law, a spiritual healer of the Negroes, whose performance is only too brief. She brings life to a film that is in desperate need of revitalization during its many dull lapses. But, fortunately, Demme is able to show the natural beauty of where they live and the warmth and strength of the Afro-Americans and their ability to stick together to help one another in times of despair. This is especially so with the women folk who turned to Jesus for strength, as they are shown praying with Baby Suggs.

When Sethe is ready to face up to the realities and misdeeds slavery does to human beings her vitality improves for awhile, as she exclaims to Paul D: “Feel how it feels to be a colored woman roaming the roads with anything God made liable to jump on you. Feel that.”

I imagine the book is that much more pertinent and that much more powerful than this very intelligent film, that views slavery in an unforgettable way; a film whose greatest weakness is that it is too long.