In Star Trek-like tendrils, Toni Morrison is a great interview; she’s down to earth, funny and embracing, a lover of Murder, She Wrote reruns and, while openly admiring William Styron, Gabriel García Márquez, Chekhov, the Russian and French master novelists and Edward Gibbon’s incomparable sentence construction, her in-person humility charmingly downplays winning the Nobel prize for literature as proof she succeeded in reaching their power in syntax. There’s deep pleasure in listening to her, not having any doubt she’s one of our sincerest and most erudite authors. Until we read the heavy load of necromancy in Beloved. In her consciousness-raising about American black history by way of annexing slave Margaret Garner’s confession of attempting to kill her children, and in fact killed her two year-old daughter, to prevent them from enslavement, Morrison elevates the consequences of infanticide to Greek myth by borrowing the baggage of guilt in Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and lifting some of Márquez’s Latin legerdemain to turn her novel into a queasy, melodramatic form of that old black magic. She weeps, her characters and readers weep and Nobel and Pulitzer prize committees honor weepiness that advances healing from which, everyone seems to have forgotten, Garner never benefited. As Morrison’s most vocal sales pitch, Oprah Winfrey weeps too; she’s been telling us for well over a decade that she has to make Beloved into a movie. She’s its biggest mistake: every year she waited to produce this insistent depressant—to have “my baby,” as she puts it—increased the inevitability that her deserving celebrity would overshadow the novel and the infanticide mother. No matter how she works to uglify herself or bring forth a semi-convincing Negroid accent or keep her voice so g.d. hush-toned, we’re still watching TV’s Auntie Ann Landers trying to match her own unreasonable expectations that she’s got the acting power to evoke genuine heartbreak. In essence, she’s relating her own experience of pregnancy at 14 that resulted in the death of her son by premature birth to her character’s sawing a daughter’s neck to save her from slavery. Oprah needed to be told no, but who’d dare say that to America’s most beloved black? As recipient of her generosity Morrison couldn’t, and certainly not Jonathan Demme, a director temperamentally at odds with reverence and solemnity, forewarned in Philadelphia. Whose idea is the blowup perspective—that when Oprah and Danny Glover are speaking to each other, they’re talking directly into the camera, force-feeding us the hell of tormented lives? There’s piddling realism we can read from Oprah’s face except that she’s wanting to bring respectfulness to her favorite author and coming up as woeful groveler. If there’s forgiveness built into the apparitional character Beloved because she’s impossible to play, Thandie Newton manages to get some of us into a most unforgiving mood as Demme allows excess; accepting the first stuffing of her mouth, we’re repulsed by the gratuitous gobbling and then inchoate psychoneurotics that follow. As the movie drools on for 2 hours and 52 minutes, our minds start to edit her and everything else; what’s left would fit into a two hour slot on Lifetime with plenty of time for Oprah to shill (and eventually did) for Weight Watchers. The only performance that comes to brief life and way too late is Kimberly Elise as Denver; Glover’s thighs and buttocks reflect the might built into black genetics; Tak Fujimoto does some worthy poster shots of light coming through trees and windows. No one seeing this movie will ever wonder why it didn’t make much money; had it been presented as a TV holiday special—during the annual masochism of Easter, perhaps—we’d have probably congratulated ourselves after watching it scoop up the big awards Spielberg was denied at Oscar time for The Color Purple. If his losses justified, so are Oprah’s and Demme’s: these two conjure jeremiads as phony fillips.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER
(Revised 7/2019) All Rights Reserved.