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'Beloved': The Haunting Truth

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 1998


Beloved Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey star in "Beloved." (Touchstone)

Jonathan Demme
Oprah Winfrey;
Danny Glover;
Thandie Newton;
Kimberly Elise;
Beah Richards
Running Time:
2 hours, 51 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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"Beloved," Oprah Winfrey's tour of the legacy of slavery, is powerful, depressing and very, very long. At close to three hours, it virtually enslaves an audience, which may be part of the point. But here's the news you won't get from the 16 national magazine covers and the all-Oprah-all-the-time channel that TV has become: it's the long, hard sit.

Remorseless and relentless, the film chronicles not so much the physical pain of slavery (though there's enough of that to go around, believe me) as the psychological weight of it, as an inheritance handed down through the generations. In that, it's pretty much an overdue bill of African American grievance presented to white America.

Derived from the dense novel by Toni Morrison, it follows the anguished gyre of Sethe (Winfrey, in a remarkable performance), born a slave in Pulaski County, Ky., subjected to all the barbarisms that condition entails. She finally flees across the Ohio River to relatively benign Cincinnati. But even there, in the 1870s, Sethe is bedeviled by the memories of what was done to her and what, in that pain's name, she did to her family.

Our access to these events is through the eyes of Paul D. (Danny Glover), another escapee from Pulaski County and former friend of her murdered slave husband. He comes to Sethe, whom he has always loved, bringing hope and possibility. He settles into the household Sethe shares with her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise), and things seem to be going well enough until the arrival of Beloved (Thandie Newton).

Who is Beloved? The movie is obscure in the character's meanings and its connection to the rational. The world of the American slave, it suggests, was similar to the world of the rural Jew in the Diaspora – a haunted zone filled with unimaginable happenings, with memories and guilts given flesh, with pains turned into winds and agonies into clouds of insects. Beloved may be Sethe's daughter; she also may be a ghost. Certainly, she is the inevitable spiritual issue of a system as grotesque as slavery, and she is to be both loved and feared at once.

Newton's great performance gives us a woman-child, with a mouth full of drool whose lips are distended wretchedly by the thoughts that her unclear brain cannot see its way to articulating. Yet she is a carnal child, with a beautiful body, tempting and willful, who carries her own dark magic with her wherever she goes, who is capable of destroying the family that comes to love her and from whose coils escape, finally, is the only redemption.

That's the arc of the story: Beloved comes, and in her way she leads Sethe's family toward facing its most grotesque truths; and in that truth, finally, one alone escapes. There's joy in her escape, to be sure; but there's also pain in the realization that for all the others, it may be too late.

The director of "Beloved" is Jonathan Demme, who must have qualified for the job on the basis of the compassion he brought to a portrayal of another oppressed community in "Philadelphia." But the Demme on display here seems more like the Demme of his other great hit, "The Silence of the Lambs," and that gives the film its voluptuous sense of horror and its prowling currents of deviant sexuality.

Demme plunges us into an elemental universe. The substances of blood and mud are ever present, and he almost fetishes Winfrey's wounded feet as the vessel of her barefoot deliverance, over the thorns and stones of Pulaski to the river (Ohio as Jordan, one must presume). This same lushness is what gave "The Silence of the Lambs" its weird power to penetrate and capture. But that was pulp elevated to art; "Beloved" occasionally becomes tragedy degraded to pulp.

One moment, in particular, appalled me: Sethe is remembering the murder of her mother in Pulaski County, where she was hanged for unspecified crimes against the controlling race. This itself is a horror, but Demme cannot resist sexualizing it; it becomes a witches' Sabbath, a ceremony held by torchlight, and the mother is glimpsed as she's taken to the gallows, her mouth plugged with a cruel metal cork that is held in place by a trusslike embracement of tight leather cords. Whether accurate or not, it gives the moment a sense of pornographic banality beyond the fact of murder. And you think: Was this imagery really necessary? I mean, really, the hanging of a woman itself is a horror enough and unsettling enough to linger not only in Sethe's mind but in our minds as well.

As for Winfrey, one can only say, My God, what a blaze of genius she is. Far from the brilliant, forceful, savvy, commanding media icon that is her real life, her Sethe is surly, bitter, inarticulate and weirdly lit from within with the ghostly incandescence of the tragic. One can see no Oprah in Sethe, no zillionaire's vanity. And that gives great pause, and may be the movie's most powerful statement of possibility: that any Sethe could become an Oprah. It's a lesson to remember.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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