Toni Morrison is probably our most sincerely pretentious black author; in her consciousness-raising about American black history, she moves beyond the simplicity of Alice Walker and in Beloved attempts to elevate the tragedy of slavery to Greek mythology. She’s lifted a bit from The Color Purple, arguably too much from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and who doesn’t see Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s magic realism turned into mournful black legerdemain? But Márquez emotionally distances himself from his own astonishing virtuosity. Morrison doesn’t: she suffers, her characters suffer and we suffer, which the Pulitzer and Nobel prize committees love. (In person, she hasn’t a trace of her novel’s morbid ostentation; though inspired by Márquez, Chekhov, the old Russian and French master novelists, and enamoured by Gibbons and his incomparable sentence constructions, she’s down to earth, a lover of Murder, She Wrote reruns.) Oprah Winfrey, Morrison’s most vocal advocate, has been telling us for well over a decade how she loved Beloved too, and, wouldn’t you know it, had to make it into a movie. She’s its biggest mistake: every year she waited to film this insistently depressing tale—to have “her baby,” as she puts it—increased the inevitability that her own deserved celebrity would overshadow the role of the infanticide mother. It isn’t enough that she’s uglified herself, or brought forth a semi-convincing Negroid accent, or kept her voice (as well as the voices of all the others) so g.d. hush-toned. No matter how appreciative and receptive the targeted audience, we’re still watching TV’s Ann Landers attempting to convince us that she’s got the internal power to evoke the genuine heartbreak of unspeakable tragedy. Intentions unquestionable, Oprah needed to be told no; but who’d dare say that to America’s most beloved black? Certainly not Jonathan Demme, a director temperamentally unsuited for reverential mythology. And whose idea is this movie’s close-up perspective—that when Oprah and Danny Glover are speaking to each other, they’re talking directly into the camera, force-feeding us on the private hell of their tormented pasts? There’s not much we can read into Oprah’s face anyway except that she’s trying to bring a dense respectfulness to her favorite author and coming up woefully short. Ironically, while there’s a forgiveness built in to the character Beloved because it’s impossible to play, Thandie Newton, a beautiful version of Margaret Avery (who played Shug in The Color Purple) manages to get some of us into a most unforgiving mood. Demme allows for excess in her effects; when she’s eating, we accept the first and maybe the second stuffing of her mouth, but after that we’re repulsed by the gratuitous continuation. Because the movie drools on for 2 hours and 52 minutes, our minds start to edit her and everything else while watching. The only performance that comes to brief life (and way too late) is Kimberly Elise as Denver. Glover’s thighs and buttocks carry inside them the whole history of black genetics. Tak Fujimoto does some lovely 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 special, we’d probably be talking about it more favorably, congratulating ourselves while watching it win awards Spielberg was supposedly denied. But his losses are justified, and, though we hoped otherwise, so are Oprah’s and Demme’s: they conjured a jeremiad beyond their talents.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.