About twenty years ago, the long-awaited adaptation of Toni Morrison's shattering novel Beloved finally made it to theaters and was greeted with a generally lukewarm response. The uncredited critic for The Guardian flippantly titled their review, "Beloved? Not likely," before describing the movie as "stillborn," astonishingly bad, cheesy, sanctimonious, and rife with stereotypes. (To compare a long-suffering matriarch, a "sturdy mother with a tree of scars whipped into her back," to a Blaxploitation heroine, as this critic does, is truly insulting.) One wonders if the writer of the Guardian review is male or female, since the bulk of their disdain arises from Oprah Winfrey's ambition and dedication to the project—she had bought the rights in 1987, shortly after the novel was released—and their vitriolic pan has the whiff of outraged sexism (how dare Winfrey use her clout to support a project that she thought was culturally significant?! and would this critic have been similarly miffed if that producer-star had been a man?). The Guardian review is only the most acerbic example of the film's critical response, which ranged from negative to indifferent: the Washington Post called it "remorseless and relentless," "tragedy degraded to pulp"; Entertainment Weekly said it is "weighted down by...crushing ponderousness" and described it as "a labor"; CNN outright called it one of the worst movies of the year.
Today, Beloved's reputation as a failure (if it's even remembered at all) stems mostly from its poor box-office performance, as the movie didn't come close to making back its $80 million budget. It was beat out by Bride of Chucky in October 1998 and, Winfrey later reflected, its failure sent her into a spiral of depression; in 2013, she publicly asked herself, "Was it a mistake?" (To her credit, she ultimately decided it wasn't, with its density and intensity capturing "the essence" of Morrison's book.) A 2017 Fortune article is brazenly titled, "What Oprah Winfrey Learned from a Very Public Failure," though it doesn't go into much detail, serving more as a promotional piece for (the vastly inferior) A Wrinkle in Time. One could argue (as the film's director, Jonathan Demme, did) that Beloved's distributor, Walt Disney Pictures, never supported it, and pulled it from theaters in order to support the newest Adam Sandler vehicle, The Waterboy. Others implied that Winfrey's very public endorsements of the movie in the lead-up to its release turned off many viewers to what they thought would be a dreary, important "message movie," though again such a response reeks of misogyny; how many times has a male producer or director pat themselves on the back for putting so much time and effort into a "serious," artistic endeavor? Whatever the case, Beloved did much worse critically and commercially than Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), which was released less than a year beforehand, made about $20 million more at the box office, and is infinitely worse than Winfrey and Demme's supposed "failure."
What a difference two decades makes. In early 2019, Beloved feels more haunting and powerful than ever, a horrific, visceral attempt to grapple with this country's legacy of slavery that eschews easy moralistic platitudes delivered through treacly dialogue. No, it doesn't match the complexity and sadness of Morrison's novel, but the fact that it even comes close to recreating that vision is somewhat miraculous. In a national cinema that has struggled to adequately and respectfully depict the legacy of the black experience, Beloved joins the ranks of movies like Within Our Gates (1920), Intruder in the Dust (1949), Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971), Mandingo (1975), Killer of Sheep (1978), Do the Right Thing (1989) and a handful of others in conveying the lasting guilt, trauma, and divisiveness that America's racist past has bestowed.
The film begins in horrifying fashion; what other high-falutin message movie starts with a dog being whipped around a room by an unseen spirit, slamming into the wall with gruesomely visceral special effects? It's a shocking opening, but also crucial in introducing us to the characters; freed slave Sethe (Winfrey), who proudly owns her own home in 1865 Ohio, gingerly tends to the dog and fixes its wounds, while her two sons flee from the house in terror, believing an uncertain future on the road to be preferable to the evil infestation they face at home.
A flash-forward several years depicts Sethe and her daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), living a tense existence in the same house, haunted (literally and figuratively) by a malevolent spirit, the result of an unspeakable sin Sethe has committed in her past. The unexpected arrival of a close friend, Paul D. (Danny Glover), with whom Sethe became close on a slave plantation in Kentucky years earlier, throws their already tenuous family out of balance. While we don't see many scenes from Sethe and Paul D.'s time together on the plantation (one of the major differences from the novel), the film does offer momentary glimpses of the traumas they experienced as slaves, from sexual abuse to brutal violence to Sethe's eventual desperate escape.
We know from the wealth of historical research on the experience of American slavery that the injustices seen in Beloved are far from hyperbolized; if anything, the film errs on the side of softening the brutality slaves experienced. (The novel, in fact, was inspired by Morrison's research into a real-life escaped slave who killed her own children rather than seeing them abducted back into slavery.) What many critics seemed to take issue with was the coexistence of such uncomfortable truths with a tone and narrative that occasionally lean towards the spectacular, horror and fantasy specifically. When Paul D. first visits Sethe's home, he is immediately struck by the presence of an evil spirit as the screen is bathed in a crimson glow reminiscent of some eye-popping giallo movie.
The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter took issue with a similarly stylized moment in which Sethe, in a brief flashback, witnesses her mother's lynching: in Hunter's words, "Demme cannot resist sexualizing [the lynching scene]; 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." While it is evocatively photographed and truly nightmarish, nothing in this scene is sexualized, and Hunter's very outrage implies its effect is the opposite of banality. As for heightening the horror of an already horrific scene to ensure it lingers in the audience's mind--shouldn't an image of a slave being hung resemble the stuff of deepest nightmares, ripped from our national subconscious?
The flashback that appalled Hunter is one of the most disturbing and macabre scenes in the movie, which generally filters the unspeakable trauma of slavery through the tropes and iconography of horror. This is a similar methodology as Mandingo, Richard Fleischer's seedy 1975 movie which was dismissed by Roger Ebert as "racist trash" and hailed by Robin Wood as "the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood"; the primary discomfort of that film lay in making audiences (especially white audiences) feel irredeemably sleazy and complicit in the scenes of violence between slaves, amplifying our feelings of guilt as much as possible. In Mandingo and Beloved (to varying extents), the true, cancerous, soul-shattering effects of slavery (and American racism more generally) are conveyed not through diatribes and explicit lecturing (as in movies like Amistad and Glory), but through scenes that are primal, uncomfortably visceral, teeming with the torrid imagery of genres like horror and blaxploitation. I know some people find such representations dubious, but when textbook-style accounts of the horrors of slavery fail to provoke some viewers' moral foundation, when we've heard speeches about the vileness of racism bellowed at us by figures (politicians, artists) who seem embroiled in this country's infrastructure of systemic racism—at that point, maybe it takes torrid ghost stories and bloody mandingo fights to make audiences feel as uncomfortable about slavery as we actually should.
I'm reminded of the Susan Sontag quote: "To suffer is one thing; another thing is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more--and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.” Once the familiar images of racial moralizing have become anesthetized, artists (especially filmmakers) need to find a way to create new images that transfix, and those genres on the borders of good taste (horror foremost among them) have that capability.
I'm getting off topic. The horror element of Beloved becomes most pronounced when the titular "character" enters the picture: croaking, wheezing, emerging from a stream amid a cloud of ladybugs and butterflies, the inhuman spirit that calls herself Beloved (played unforgettably by Thandie Newton) adheres herself to a tree like a scarecrow (or, disturbingly, like Sethe's mother, hanging long and prostrate from a noose). Beloved then makes her way to Sethe's home, where it eventually becomes clear—more clear than in Morrison's novel, which is one of the few weaknesses of the movie in comparison to the book—that Beloved is Sethe's reincarnated older daughter, whom Sethe had killed years earlier in order to prevent her from falling into the hands of her former slaveowner, Schoolteacher. Beloved predictably wreaks havoc among Sethe, Denver, and Paul D., who all have conflicting perspectives on Sethe's sacrifice and the extent to which she must atone for her "sins."
As suggested by the opening image, in which the camera swoops past a gravestone marked with the name "Beloved," the entire movie is concerned with death and resurrection, literally as well as metaphorically: the ghosts of America's slaveowning past coming back to haunt us. Naturally, horror is the ideal conduit for presenting such themes. But the nature of that death and resurrection, for the characters onscreen and for viewers in the audience, is relatively radical in American cinema. As inheritors of shame, whose ancestors are responsible for much of the violence and exploitation seen in the movie, white Americans are likely to feel a sense of guilt and discomfort at Beloved's harsher elements. But the vast majority of characters in the movie are black, as the only white character with a major speaking role is Amy Denver (Kessia Kordelle), a white Southern woman escaping from her own oppression who helps Sethe deliver her baby after she escapes from the plantation. Other white characters are momentarily glimpsed (the sadistic Schoolteacher, the white men who rape and steal Sethe's milk when she's pregnant, the benevolent white patriarch who employs Denver in the film's last act), but for the most part Beloved exists in a world populated by black Americans who are enslaved or recently fled from their enslavement. In other words, white characters are largely unseen but their actions propel the entire plot into motion, mirroring American society for much of the last three centuries, as structures of education, economics, health care, policing, etcetera are decided by the white majority but have deleterious effects on black Americans. One wonders if part of the reason that the movie fared poorly was because it sympathizes with and centers around black characters almost exclusively, unlike other movies "about" racism that were more highly acclaimed but are mostly about how racism affects white people, like Crash (2004) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
Beloved was directed by a white filmmaker, but Jonathan Demme was an ideal steward for the project. A chameleonic director, his filmography ranges from early exploitation under Roger Corman (Caged Heat) to off-kilter comedy (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob) to horror (Silence of the Lambs) to prestige message movie (Philadelphia). A strain of implicit social commentary runs through much of his work, including Something Wild and his underrated remake of The Manchurian Candidate. A compelling storyteller, Demme nonetheless finds ways to inject formal innovation into his films, as evidenced in Beloved by those momentary indulgences in horror (which include a carnal scene in which Beloved entraps Paul D. in a shed and seduces him) as well as flashbacks which were filmed on reversal negative film stock, lending them a hyperreal look more interesting than black-and-white or a similar kind of device. He also evokes fine performances from the entire cast, many of whom have to grapple with extremely difficult roles; Oprah Winfrey's commitment to the character of Sethe is obvious and highly moving, and Thandie Newton manages to create a not-quite-human character that still engenders great sympathy from the audience, as though Beloved is yet another victim to add to all the others (which she clearly was in Morrison's book, though she serves a more monstrous role in the film).
Beloved isn't perfect. The musical score (by Rachel Portman) aims for cliched, soaring-strings prestige, and I'll admit that some of the more predictable genre elements dilute the power of the film's story and themes (such as the fate of Beloved near the end of the movie, which is far from satisfying). But the film remains a marvel of Hollywood audacity, an utterly frightening and devastating story of how traumas both personal and political (which tend to be closely intertwined) always recur with devastating consequences. It's baffling that the film was presented as a classy, serious drama (or maybe that's just what most people assumed it would be), because its most powerful asset is its weirdness, its volatility, its anger and its visceral intensity: this is on an entirely different planet than Amistad or that other high-profile Oprah Winfrey movie about racism, The Color Purple. Like the Toni Morrison novel on which it's based (but to a lesser extent), Beloved is many things: a bracing attempt to grapple with a country's ignominious past, the story of a woman forced to live with unthinkable horror, a document of a time and place that are part of America's fabric but are rarely honestly depicted, a transliteration of historical trauma into stylized Gothic horror. It's a film wholly dedicated to its story, characters, and ideas, and completely uninterested in garnering little gold statuettes. Apparently it was that ambition that doomed it.