Hollywood has yet to deliver the movie we so desperately need about slavery, the one that will plunge us, with a force comparable to that of, say, Schindler’s List, into a newly intimate and terrifying contemplation of the obscenity of the African-American holocaust. There are moments in Beloved, the somberly forbidding, nearly three-hour adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, in which I imagined what that movie might look like. The film tells the story of a former slave, Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), who is living on a rural plot outside of Cincinnati eight years after the end of the Civil War. Sethe has a teenage daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), who resents her mother’s past, and, early on, Sethe takes in a boarder as well, an avuncular old friend named Paul D (Danny Glover); a former slave who has been wandering the country since he was freed, he soon becomes her lover. The appearance of domestic stability, though, is the barest of illusions. Sethe’s home is haunted by demons — the film opens with a camera-rocketing exorcistic upheaval — and she is shadowed by memories of murder and survival during her years at Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where she grew into womanhood.
Those memories come crashing back in images of occasionally startling power. Just after she’d given birth, Sethe was held down by the master’s sons, who grinningly suckled at her breasts. The director, Jonathan Demme, gives us a disquieting shot in which we see this atrocity from Sethe’s point of view. ”They took my milk,” she keeps saying, and the way that Oprah Winfrey delivers that line, with mournful diminuendo, it truly seems an indignity beyond words. Winfrey’s performance is full of stoic anger — her big round eyes stare with defiance, yet, at times, they express a fear, a glint of degradation, we haven’t seen in her before. Still, her haunted look can’t hold Beloved together the way that Morrison’s haunted prose did.
A historical passion play fused with gothic family psychodrama, Beloved, as a movie, is a dense, jangled cataclysm of enigma and outrage. It leaps from the present to the past, from the ”tree” scars of a savage whipping to the eerie vision of a ghostly woman-child in black finery emerging from the darkened woods. Although individual moments have ferocity and pull, you’re always aware of them as moments. Intense yet amorphous, weighed down by the crushing ponderousness of its vision of slavery as mythical horror, the movie is undeniably a labor of devotion and intelligence, but, in the end, a labor is just what it is.
Covered by a swarm of ladybugs, Thandie Newton makes her unsettling entrance as Beloved, the beautiful wounded spectre from Sethe’s past. With her jaw hung open, she speaks in croaks and throaty growls and seems mentally damaged, yet with a lacerating, almost preverbal awareness, like a once-vivid person who’d been crippled by the soul’s equivalent of a car accident. Beloved, as a character, is both mystery and metaphor — she seems an apparition out of a monster movie — and for a while we’re held by the ghoulish strangeness of Newton’s performance, and by our desire for revelation. Finally, we confront the episode the film has been building toward: a flashback in which Sethe, having escaped from Sweet Home, is tracked down by her former owner, who wants to take her and her children back. She responds with an explosion of instinct at once moral and unforgivable.
The film presents this shocking incident as an act of submerged vengeance that would drive almost anyone who’d committed it over the edge of sanity. In this case, however, insanity is muffled, and so is rage. For Beloved to work, we need to understand how a mother could go this far — and in our heads, at least, we do. But I’m not sure the film makes the case in our hearts. The abstract oddity of Beloved as a screen character distances us from the very horror she’s meant to incarnate, and once her identity is revealed, the film loses its dramatic center. It moves away from Sethe’s struggle and becomes draggy with self-importance.
Demme, in his first film since Philadelphia (1993), now strays even further from his roots as an affectionate, wise chronicler of human ambition and folly. His direction of Beloved is at once arty and literal-minded, and I’m afraid that the tone of indignant high seriousness that has taken over his work represents his bid for moral sanctification. Beloved is a lecture in the form of a movie. It isn’t the kind of picture that wins awards — it’s the kind that’s made to win awards. C+