17 February 2014

Beloved


Beloved 1998
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Based on the book by Toni Morrison
  • Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Beah Richards, Kimberly Elise, Thandie Newton, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Kessia Embry, Albert Hall
  • Personal “oh yeah him/her” reaction, i.e. have seen this actor in:
    • Oprah Winfrey  The Color Purple
    • Danny Glover – Be Kind Rewind, Honeydripper, Dreamgirls, Manderlay, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bopha, Lethal Weapon 1-4, The Color Purple, Silverado
    • Beah Richards  Drugstore Cowboy, Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, The Miracle Worker, TV series
    • Kimberly Elise – The Great Debaters
    • Thandie Newton: 2012, Crash, Gridlock’d
    • Lisa Gay Hamilton – Take Shelter, Honeydripper, Jackie Brown, Palookaville
    • Albert Hall – Honeydripper, Devil in a Blue Dress, Malcom X, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Apocalypse Now
  • Why? Toni Morrison, Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey
  • Seen: February 16, 2014, with Hal, YW and KW in our read-book-see-film group
       The novel is painful to read; the film is painful to watch.  History is often painful.
       Morrison is always painful to read but because of less than glowing reviews, especially Maltin which gives the film only two stars, my expectations for the film are not high. I am not at all prepared for the depth of my reaction.  The four of us watching it sit riveted, practically speechless, for two and a half hours.
       The story is so complex that it has taken me three readings of the novel to adequately follow it. In brief, Sethe, a slave, manages to escape to Ohio, getting her three children there ahead of her and giving birth to a fourth on the way. Her husband and the other men of the farm Sweet Home are supposed to escape with her but they fail. After a short month of freedom Sethe’s hated owner Schoolteacher tracks her down. Instead of allowing herself and her children to be forced back into slavery, Sethe kills her daughter Beloved, intending to kill them all but she is stopped. Eighteen years later Beloved returns as a beautiful strange young woman after having haunted the house for years. Sethe and her other daughter Denver are trapped in Beloved’s obsessive love and need.  Paul D, Sethe’s fellow slave who has found her and drawn her into a happy (relatively) relationship, is driven off.
       The film does an astounding job of putting this story on screen. Like the novel it’s done in flashbacks.
       The only two scenes the film doesn’t really manage are the ones in which Beloved is killed and in the climactic scene in the end when Beloved is driven away. Both are brief and confusing and unsatisfactory.  It is also a weakness in the film that Paul D’s descent into alcoholism and despair after leaving Sethe is omitted.
       Otherwise, it is a masterfully done film.  Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise and Thandie Newton are utterly superb in their roles.
       What was Maltin thinking?  Yes, the supernatural plays an important part and if you can’t accept that, I suppose the film (and the novel) would be hard to get into.  But if you can’t take it literally, it is at the very least a metaphorical way of dealing with the unfathomable cruelty and evil of slavery and how each individual slave and freed slave was haunted by their past.  Beloved haunts Sethe.  What could be more natural?
       And one of the most haunting lines, spoken by an unnamed black man to Paul D, is, “Just ‘cause you can’t see no chains, don’t mean they ain’t there.”
       Beloved, Sethe, Paul D, Denver and all the others haunt all of us who see the film. In fact they haunt everyone throughout the history of the US and the Western world, even if we don’t see them.
      
4 * of 5
      
      

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