Audience reaction to slavery
epic Beloved shows that
America is as uncomfortable as ever with its past. But the film's director JONATHAN DEMME and star OPRAH WINFREY believe that it's America's present that
has a lot to answer for.
Words: Alan Morrison
IN LIVING COLOUR
'IT WILL BE A LONG TIME BEFORE I touch another movie about race.‘ admits a battle-scarred Oprah Winfrey. ‘So much shame is still associated with slavery. A lot of black people don‘t want to be reminded that it even existed because they're angered by it and choose to be in denial about it.’
The chatshow queen is still smarting from the American reaction to her film Beloved. an adaptation of Toni Morrison's post-slavery Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which Winfrey. as producer. struggled for almost ten years to bring to the screen. The film failed to pack in the crowds then suffered the ignomy of being whupped in the box office charts by Adam Sandler‘s lightweight baseball comedy The miter/my. In the recently announced Academy Award nominations. Beloved managed a nod in only one category — Costume Design — compounding the feeling that even Hollywood would prefer to brush its message under the carpet.
Beloved is not. however. some pretty 19th century costume epic. Central to the story is the murder of a baby girl by her mother. a desperate attempt to free the child from the cruelty of white masters. Morrison's book brilliantly captures the emotional and psychological devastation of slavery: the reader is
shocked not only by the thought of families being split up and sold off
separately but by the fact that. as emotional self-protection. parents stopped themselves from loving the children they never expected to see again after infancy.
12 THE LIST 4-18 Mar 1999
The film‘s impact is less certain. but perhaps the responsibilities placed upon it are too great. After the publication of Beloved. Morrison
went on to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature — just one peak in an important Black American literary heritage that takes in Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. But this weighty canon of work has not found its equivalent on screen. There have been angry ‘street‘ movies. action—packed blaxploitation flicks. sassy comedies and sisterly dramas — but where are the screen depictions of Black American history? The (‘olor Purple. Amismd and Glory aren‘t enough to
give an entire people a sense of their
If films can get to a wider —— and younger — audience than novels. then Beloved and its ilk have a vital role to
play in modern America. One of
Beloved's stars. 27-year—old Kimberly
Elise. who plays Sethe‘s other
daughter. Denver. agrees.
‘What they teach us in school about slavery is very limited.‘ she says. 'lt's like three pages out of a big textbook. There‘s not a whole lot that we know about it. so you sort of have to educate yourself. It‘s important to go back and approach it from the angle we did —- an emotional connection as opposed to the intellectual. literary. historical aspects of slavery. To understand it and experience it more on a heartfelt level.‘
But when a film like Beloved fails at the box office. studios can argue that black audiences just aren‘t
'A country can free its slaves, but that doesn't mean that country is now going to truly create equal opportunity.’
interested in the slavery issue. Beloved's director. Jonathan Demme recognises that the truth is much more complex in social terms.
“()ne of the reasons we're still suffering so heavily under the residue of slavery is because there‘s institutiomilised white denial as to its terrible human truth.‘ argues Demme. whose Oscar-winning work includes Silenee ()f The Lam/7s and Philadelphia. 'There's a connection between slavery and the legions of disenfranchised black people living in virtual hopelessness and despair in areas that have been abandoned by the police and school systems and hospitals. by landlords who would provide heat and running water. A country can free its slaves. but that doesn't mean that country is now going to truly create equal opportunity.‘
Unlike so many of his Hollywood peers. Demme retains an idealism about the power of cinema. While Winfrey concedes that ‘it will take a long time before a film can change people's awareness‘. Demme wants his work to count. And he knows that the odds are stacked against him.
‘We have Black History Month.‘ he says. ‘where we‘re taught about a handful of black figures. and then we're back to. obviously. White History. It‘s not labelled as such. but let‘s face it — that’s what it is.’
Beloved opens on Fri 5 Mar; see review, page 25. Scene By Scene with Jonathan Demme is broadcast on BBC2, Sat 27 Feb, 11.20pm.