Courtesy Photo
171 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, October 2, 1998
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall & Irma P. Hall


Just by nature of it's epic tone, this movie is going to lose something to the small screen. Some of the supernatural elements might seem a little hokey played out on TV. But the annoying conversational cinematography I mention in the review will certainly be less bothersome on video, and that's definately a plus.

Former slave fable a historical, spiritual, supernatural epic

There was really only one thing about "Beloved" I didn't like. Fully one-third of the movie consists of one-shots -- close-ups in which the characters, while ostensibly talking to each other, speak straight into the camera.

The first time I noticed it, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, playing former slaves struggling to create new lives in Ohio, are sitting on the porch of Oprah's battered house in a meadow talking about life on the plantation they both escaped some years before.

Moving in to capture the many subtle levels of emotion registering on their faces, director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") seems to forget completely that this is a conversation and not two simultaneous monologues. The scene is a good two or three minutes, and in all that time there are maybe two brief shots with both of them in the frame. The rest of the time, they're talking to each other through the camera.

It drove me positively bonkers.

Now that I have that off my chest, let me impart to you how powerfully impassioned and transporting this movie is, in spite of the transgressions of the cinematographer.

Based on Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize novel, "Beloved" combines momentous historical drama, unsettling supernatural incantation and a strong spirit of purpose to produce a unique story considerably more effective and absorbing than any of those themes could ever accomplish on their own.

Completely unique and often daring (although not so portentous as to eschew Oscar-baiting), it is the story of a former slave named Sethe (Winfrey) haunted by the ghost of the baby daughter she killed in order to save the child from a life in chains.

The film takes place some 18 or so years after this murder as Sethe raises her younger daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), in the family's generational homestead in the hills of rural Cincinnati. Somewhat ostracized by the community over the memory of her crime, Sethe lives with her demons both internal and external -- the ghost of the dead girl often wreaks terror on the weather-beaten house.

Still traumatized as much by memories of plantation life as she is by her daughter's unseen spirit, Sethe remembers the horrors of her slavery in violent flashes of lynchings and rape which are every bit as potent as the battle scenes in "Saving Private Ryan," the current standard-bearer of cinematic ultra-realism. And Winfrey's vehement performance is visceral enough to tie the audience's stomachs in sympathy knots and make us forget her talk show career all together.

The story takes shape with the arrival of Paul D (Glover), a slave from the same plantation who stays with the family and romances Sethe, rankling the baby's ghost to the point that she destroys the home's small kitchen in a whirlwind of supernatural jealousy -- then vanishes.

After a few unhaunted weeks, a beautiful, awkward traveler (Thandie Newton, "Jefferson in Paris," "Gridlock'd") collapses in Sethe's yard and is taken in by the family. There is something slightly unearthly about her and she is seemingly unfamiliar with her own body in terms of motor skills and just about everything else.

Near mute, when she does speak it's with a deep, scratched voice and with the vocabulary of a toddler. She has breathing problems and when she walks she doesn't seem sure of her legs beneath her. Appearing to be in her late teens, she has a innocent, tender infantile face that can in, a fit of anger, quickly become screwed up into a frightful mask of rage. (Although at other times these faces are a bit too gawky to be taken as seriously as they are intended.)

Somehow the presence of this ethereal girl, who calls herself Beloved, feels fitting in this house, and it's only a matter of time before Sethe, Paul D and especially Denver begin to suspect who and what this apparition might be.

The unusual mix of milieus in "Beloved" -- epic history, social proclamation, spiritual tragedy, 19th Century "X-Files" episode -- not only make it uncatagorizable, but inspiring.

Director Demme brings Sethe's history to life in grainy and over-exposed, shuddering but affirming flashbacks of her harrowing escape from her master while pregnant with Denver, her arrival in Ohio, and the pursuit by that master which lead her to murder her baby.

Winfrey's performance, as I've said, is faultless. And while Glover's part could have just as easily been played by Samuel L. Jackson or Morgan Freeman, the rest of the women in the cast are also impressive. Lisa Gay Hamilton (of TV's "The Practice") is at least as effective playing the young Sethe in flashbacks as Oprah is in the adult role. Kimberly Elise beautifully balances shades of protectiveness and jealousy in her sisterly relationship with Beloved. Newton seems genuinely possessed by the character of Beloved in a way that is at once ominous and fragile.

In a scene where she revealingly hums a song Sethe made up herself and only sang to her children, I literally got chills.

Toward the end of the film there are some unsure moments. The third act takes several scenes to find its footing, but by this time "Beloved" has the audience rapt and it makes little difference.

There is another slavery-themed picture, "Shadrach", opening this weekend as well, but trust me, this is the one you want to see. But do keep an eye out at Christmas for another Black heritage film called "Down in the Delta." A wonderful homage to oral tradition, it will be a great companion piece to "Beloved" for future retrospectives of Black historical dramas on film.

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