Journey to Beloved
America has its shames, but we have our glories, too. Here’s one: Out of the lingering national wounds of slavery, Toni Morrison, a black woman from Lorain, Ohio, wrote Beloved and won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for that brutal and haunting story about a former slave; in 1993, she was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. Here’s another: 135 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Oprah Winfrey, a black woman from Kosciusko, Miss., reigns as one of the richest, most influential women in American popular culture. And with that power and regal force of will, she has turned Beloved into a movie — a challenge even Morrison had thought was impossible. Winfrey produced it, stars in it, and is promoting it with signature determination. Is this not a wonderful country, a satisfying arc of history?
Indeed, so passionately has Winfrey pursued her beloved project, she’s pouring her outsize energies into ancillary synergistic ventures, too. With Journey to Beloved — most of which is an ”almost daily kept account” of her impressions during production of the film, paired with dreamy, evocative, sepia-toned on-set photographs by Ken Regan — Oprah the mogul becomes Oprah the author. And here’s an interesting development: She may be a compelling talker, but she’s not a smooth or easy writer. She’s prone to skitter from thought to thought. She prefers effusiveness over more analytic regard. She’s exquisitely self-conscious about being Oprah Winfrey, that most empowered of free Americans, playing a slave. She’s hamstrung by the printed word.
As a result, this sketchy volume — from a woman who reveres books — is inadvertently touching, but frustrating, too. Winfrey writes from the heart about how she sobbed as she reenacted the miseries of her forebears. (In preparation for the movie, she participated in a slavery exercise, playing a free woman who was captured to work on a plantation. ”What [slavery] felt like,” she writes, ”was death with no salvation.”) But what’s more affecting are her occasional straightforward, less awestruck what-happened-next-was anecdotes. There was, for example, the moment when she first finished reading Beloved, back in 1987, and was seized with a hunger to buy the movie rights — immediately. Unfortunately, it was a weekend. She didn’t have Morrison’s phone number, and no one she knew did either. So she did an Oprah thing: She located the novelist’s town: ”I ended up calling the fire department, asking them to please…call Toni Morrison up and say to her that I was trying to reach her.” And they did. And Winfrey got what she wanted.
I love that uncoy go-getter-hood. If only Journey to Beloved had more of Oprah being Oprah! She’s most engaging when writing about her acting insecurities, her exhilaration after a good day’s shooting, her anxiety before doing a love scene with costar Danny Glover. But when she writes, ”I would be a fool to give up the Oprah Winfrey Show. I must figure out a way to make it work,” I feel cheated: Tell me more! What don’t you think works? When she writes, ”Came home to discover Versace was murdered. Who would have imagined that? The world seems out of control…” I want to ask, Did you know him? When movie producer Oprah retreats behind empty praise — ”Danny Glover is brilliant. His performance is the finest display of truth coming to life I have ever seen”; ”Thandie Newton — Brilliant! Brilliant! and Beyond”; ”[Director] Jonathan [Demme] is my hero” — I need more proof, more show, less tell. And when she fills a page with five words — ”Memories. Rememories. History. Creativity. Life” — she’s lost me.
Oh, Oprah! Role model, business leader, tastemaker, regular woman fretting about her weight! Her followers — presumably, anybody buying this artfully designed book — are already in her corner. So why not talk to her readers the way she talks on TV?
Journey to Beloved does offer one clue as to what stops her: More than once, the journal keeper mentions the weight and responsibility of Morrison’s text on her shoulders. (Demme tells her: ”Your preparation is excellent. But you’re being harnessed by the book.”) Maybe Oprah Winfrey the worshiper of writers is a tad too respectful of Toni Morrison’s literary achievement. Maybe Morrison needs to convince her famous fan that even a fabulously successful, influential African-American woman is allowed to laugh with pleasure in the face of destiny. B-