Beloved, Jonathan Demme's much-anticipated adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel, is a
powerful and disturbing motion picture that is likely to leave many movie-goers unsettled as they
file out of the theater. Although the movie probably runs a little too long and occasionally suffers
from confusing editing, it is nevertheless the kind of film that stays with a viewer for days (instead
of minutes or hours) after the end credits have scrolled across the screen.
Beloved is a ghost tale. It's about a woman's sins literally coming back to haunt her. The
main story transpires in Ohio during 1865, but there are numerous flashbacks to pre-Civil War
times. Like many other motion pictures set during this era, Beloved is about the
pernicious influence of slavery, but the approach taken by Morrison's novel attains its uncommon
power through originality. There are twists in the plot that I will not discuss here except to say
that they present a gut-wrenching view of what slavery could drive a woman to do in the name of
protecting her children. Some of what happens in Beloved, you will expect. Other things,
you will not.
The film opens on a peaceful summer afternoon in Ohio, when a lonely traveler named Paul D
(Danny Glover) arrives at the house at 124 Bluestone Road. Living there is Sethe (Oprah
Winfrey), a woman Paul D knew many years ago when they were both slaves on a Kentucky farm
named Sweet Home. ("It wasn't sweet and it wasn't home.") Sethe is not alone in her house. Her
daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), a virtual shut-in, also lives there. However, her two sons have
long since gone, scared away by the ghost of another child that haunts the premises. ("It ain't evil,
just sad.") No sooner has Paul D arrived than he meets the spirit, and, in a struggle of wills,
appears to dispel it. But Denver doubts his success, thinking that the dead baby is planning
Soon after, Paul D, now Sethe's lover, has moved in, and is setting his sights on winning Denver's
trust. One afternoon, on the way back from a carnival, Denver and Sethe encounter a nearly-mute
young woman (Thandie Newton) who has been overcome by heat exhaustion. They bring her
home and revive her. The only name she gives them is "Beloved." Thereafter, Denver makes
Beloved her special project, teaching her things about life, and how to speak. But, while Denver
and Sethe are infatuated with this strange, wild woman, Paul D is suspicious. Something about
Beloved strikes him as dangerous.
Beloved contains its share of brutal flashbacks from the time of Sethe and Paul D's
enslavement. In one, we see a group of men holding down a pregnant Sethe while others viciously
assault her. Arguably more disturbing is a scene set in the "present," when, as Sethe and Paul D
embrace during lovemaking, we see the crisscross of ugly scars across their backs, the legacy of
their long, hard, dehumanizing years at Sweet Home. In actuality, however, the film's power
doesn't come from one single scene, or even a series of scenes, but from the cumulative effect of
everything that transpires, and the eerie manner in which Demme chooses to present it.
The performances in Beloved are uniformly excellent. Oprah Winfrey, who has always
chosen her film roles carefully, and is probably best known for her syndicated weekday talk show,
essays Sethe as a complex and believable character trapped by the consequences of her own
actions. From the beginning, we can sense her pain, even when we don't know the full explanation
for it. As the movie progresses, however, and more of the story emerges, we come to understand
her reasons for acting as she did, even if it's impossible to agree with her. Winfrey throws herself
into this role, thoroughly effacing her glamorous television image. This isn't surprising, since she
was the driving fo
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