The first Toni Morrison book I bought was Song of Solomon. I found a used paperback copy on a bargain table under a bridge in London, on the banks of the Thames. I had heard of Morrison from better-read friends, and something about buying one of her books in such an unlikely place appealed to me. Several months in England can make you hunger for anything authentically American (as opposed to the inauthentic Americanisms you find on TV and in movie theaters there every dayeverybody I knew in England loved Baywatch).
Toni Morrison is indelibly Americanshe gets labeled a "black writer" because that's still what we do in this country, but her best work transcends any ghettoization. Like Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison before her, she universalizes African American experience, digging deep into the psychic scars of dehumanization. She gets lumped in with the New Age-y Alice Walkerhey, they're both black women, right?but they have little in common. There's nothing "sensitive" about Morrison's writingit's graphic, colorful, frightening, seductive, and nightmarish, balancing anger with powerful joy. Song of Solomon is still my favorite of her books (and one of my favorite books, period), but it's no surprise that her Pulitzer Prize and, now, her first movie adaptation came from 1987's Beloved.
I remember seeing Tom Wolfe, white suit and all, on TV a few years ago complaining that nobody (himself excepted, presumably) was trying to write Great American Novels anymore. I don't know what his criteria are, but Beloved a harrowing exploration of the legacy of slaverycertainly fits any I can think of. Haunting rather than didactic and spilling over with scenes so powerfully imagined you see them in your sleep, it is a great book and a Great Book, an American canvas drenched in blood.
If Tom Wolfe didn't get it, Oprah Winfrey did, and she has apparently spent the past decade trying to turn it into a movie. Now that she hasa nearly three-hour, $90 million vehicleit's worth asking why she went to all the trouble. Beloved the movie was almost certain to fall short of Beloved the book, and it does. It is a good film but not a great one, and only a great one would suffice. For anyone who hasn't read the book, the film may be compelling, even powerful, but it won't convey the depth and subtlety of the story. And for anyone who has read it, the adaptation will seem like an intelligent and faithful failure.
Jonathan Demme is the director, and it's interesting that he hasn't come in for the same "White Men Just Don't Get It" criticism that Steven Spielberg took for The Color Purple. That's probably partly because Beloved is seen as primarily Oprah's project, but it's also because Demme doesn't shy away from his source material the way Spielberg did. The film has some bold, even shocking, scenes, andat least until the very endit resists sentimentalization.
The story's about a former slave, Sethe (Winfrey, her first screen role in years), living outside Cincinnati after the Civil War. When Paul D. (Danny Glover), an old acquaintance who knew her on the plantation, comes to visit, he finds a madhouseSethe and her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) are haunted by the angry ghost of Sethe's eldest daughter, who died as an infant.
Shortly after Paul D.'s arrival, the baby ghost disappears. But someone else arrivesBeloved (Thandie Newton), a croaking, stumbling wild woman who forces herself into the family. Who Beloved really isand what she representsis the core of the story, as Sethe is forced to confront her scarred, tortured past.
But that past is never satisfyingly portrayed, which is the movie's greatest weakness. The first hour or so is spent establishing the "backstory," but it's mostly done in conversations between Glover and Winfrey. Scenes that were vividand intensely visualin Morrison's novel are delivered flatly here in almost dispassionate dialogue. Demme has somehow produced a film that is less cinematic than the book it's based on. Since so much of what happens in Beloved depends on not just understanding the horror of Sethe's slave life but on actually feeling it, the movie fails to adequately set up its chilling climax.
Still, it is a well-made film with strong performances. The first thing I thought while watching Winfrey was that she should act more often; she's good. The second thing I thought was that if she had pursued that path, she might be another Angela Bassett or Whoopie Goldberg, doomed to movies that don't deserve herand certainly in no position to leverage the production of a three-hour film about slavery. Elise and Glover are solid, and Thandie Newton is rivetingshe takes a nearly impossible role, half infant and half demon, and gives it vibrant life.
Demme's direction is elegant, which isn't necessarily a compliment. For a director whose early films were marked by rootless black humor (first movie: Roger Corman's Caged Heat), he's starting to seem awfully glum. Even serious subjects can use some jazzing up. The film's score is relentlessly elegiac, as is the cinematographytoo many scenes rely on suffusions of golden light to set the tone.
In the end, it's hard to know what to say about Beloved. It is an important movie for a lot of reasons, and not a bad one. Winfrey deserves lots of credit for her persistence and the nakedness (both literal and figurative) of her performance. But this is not the great American movie about slavery, the cinematic equivalent of Morrison's work. That, we can only hope, is still to come.