National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

A Muddy Condemnation of Slavery

Despite some bright moments, Beloved gets sunk by its makers' pessimism and confusing story

BY John Prizer

November 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/22/98 at 1:00 PM

 

Toni Morrison is one of the high priestesses of political correctness. A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, she argues that America is economically, politically, and culturally structured to oppress women and minorities. In a recent New Yorker article, she urged African-Americans to ignore President Clinton's impeachment problems and vote for Democrats who support him because of their common backgrounds of victim-hood. In return, the night before the election Hillary Clinton hosted a White House screening of Beloved, based on Morrison's novel of the same name.

The movie's director, Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), and screenwriters, Akousa Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks, are faithful to the author's purposes which, in themselves, are admirable. Morrison wants to force Americans to confront the harsh legacy of slavery—not just the physical pain but also the psychological scars carried by the victims even after they were freed. It's a terrible, hidden inheritance which rightfully should be exposed and analyzed.

Both the movie and the book use the conventions of the fantasy-horror genre to tell their stories. These clash with emotional and political points that are being dramatized, resulting in an uneven hybrid which is slow moving and confusing.

The action is set in 1873 in a black community on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) lives in a haunted house which everyone in the neighborhood avoids. Inside, furniture mysteriously moves around; her dog is attacked by strange forces; and the walls shimmer with a red glow. Her teen-age daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), who is too shy to venture outside, states the obvious when she declares: “We have a ghost here.”

Into this deranged world come two outsiders, Paul D (Danny Glover), who had been a slave with Sethe on the “Sweet Home” plantation across the river in Kentucky. A sane, rational, decent man, he's supposed to represent the audience's point of view. He has always loved Sethe and hopes to turn her house into a home for both of them.

The few moments of calm which he brings are disrupted by the appearance of the second visitor, Beloved (Thandie Newton). A beautiful, developmentally disabled woman-child, she seems to come out of nowhere and attach herself to Sethe. Her eyes rolling from side to side and her mouth drooling saliva, she speaks in a deep guttural voice that seems demonic.

Is she another ghost, the spirit of Sethe's long-dead daughter? The movie deliberately keeps the answer ambiguous. She's meant to be a kind of grotesque symbol of the effect of slavery's evils on its victims. She is Morrison's metaphor for the way the damage inflicted on slaves can haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Beloved's presence triggers a series of flashbacks about Sethe's past. We see the sadistic cruelty with which the slaves on the Sweet Home plantation were treated. For example, Sethe's mother is lynched in front of her for reasons that are never explained to her.

Even though pregnant, Sethe and the father of her children plan an escape, but only she makes it. While fleeing through the woods, she gives birth with the help of a young white woman who continually invokes the name of Jesus.

Sethe herself isn't a particularly spiritual person. But she takes refuge in free Ohio in the home of her grandmother, Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), a self-anointed preacher. Her message is a syncretic mixture of Pentecostal Christianity and folk religion. She attracts a large following of freed slaves who gather in the woodlands behind her house and respond enthusiastically to her words with spontaneous, self-created rituals.

Morrison depicts Baby Suggs as a saintly personality whose earthy, unorthodox sermons function as a Greek chorus and spiritual center to the action. But Sethe seems untouched by them, and she's forced to make certain horrible, moral compromises to survive when the plantation owner finally catches up with her.

Back in the present, Beloved begins to behave in ways that threaten to destroy Sethe's fragile family unit. But the ex-slave refuses to take any action to protect herself. Paul D decides to leave. “Your love is too thick, Sethe,” he warns. “Thin love ain't no love at all,” she replies.

The movie slowly loses itself in scenes of melodramatic and allegorical excess. Morrison believes that America continues to oppress black people even after the Emancipation Proclamation. “Just because you can't see no chains, that don't mean they're not there,” another ex-slave tells Sethe. “As long as the world is white, that's the way we stand.”

Morrison's good intentions aren't enough. Her laudable desire to set the record straight on slavery is overwhelmed by her negative, deterministic view of what she believes are America's systemic evils. There's no redemption or catharsis in her sad tale, only unrelenting pain. Despite a halfhearted attempt at an upbeat ending, the filmmakers remain true to her bleak vision.

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.

Beloved is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.