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Beloved   B+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 1998
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, Adam Brooks (based on the novel by Toni Morrison)
Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall, Irma P. Hall.

Review by Eric Beltmann

Unlike Schindler's List, a picture it has been compared to, Beloved depicts the horrors of its chosen injustice -- slavery -- by concentrating solely on the psychological damage it engendered. Significantly, this underappreciated adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel about slavery takes place in 1873, more than a decade after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. What makes it an exceptional film is the way it illustrates the emotional impact of imposed servitude that must certainly have lingered long after a slave was granted freedom. Using both literal and surreal metaphors, the director, Jonathan Demme, has fashioned the book into a poetic, metaphysical journey through the soul of Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave tormented by a long-ago backfire of maternal instinct that is, shockingly, both reprehensible and completely noble.

Now free, Sethe is still suffering from the wounds left by slavery; her mind carries psychological scars far more painful than the physical scars on her back. Her previous indiscretion literally haunts her, in the form of a ghoulish apparition inhabiting her home, rattling the windows and tossing the family dog around the kitchen. Eventually, it materializes as a croaking two-year-old in the body of a beautiful, unbalanced waif (Thandie Newton). Demme's phantasmal visualization of this spirit is earnestly far-fetched; it may suggest to you Alice Hoffman crossed with The Exorcist. But it's also an effective metaphor: like her memories, this creature reminds Sethe of her previous life as a commodity, it terrorizes her in bursts of undeserved violence, and it forces her to become stronger.

Somewhere in this process, Demme dares to ask (as Morrison did) whether death was an inviting alternative to life under American slavery. It sounds like sanctimonious melodrama, but in the hands of Demme, one of America's most gifted and humane directors, the matter is handled with intelligence and genuine compassion. In flashback, when one slave kills another, the white masters do not consider the killer to be guilty of murder. Instead, the killer is guilty only of destroying property. When your entire race is considered no more valuable than livestock, what kind of toll does that exact on a person's psyche? That question is the film's true subject, and it's a topic that distended crowdpleasers like Amistad don't even bother to approach. By grasping that slavery had long-lasting implications far beyond abusive physical oppression, and by depicting those ramifications with such poetic force, Beloved becomes the first film to truly get the horror -- the harrowing human repugnance -- of slavery on the screen.

Review published 05.01.2001.

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