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Oeuvre: Demme: Beloved

Oeuvre: Demme: Beloved

Beloved deserves to be reevaluated.

Based on Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Jonathan Demme’s Beloved was a box office bomb that is largely remembered as one of the few blemishes on producer-star Oprah Winfrey’s résumé. But the film deserves to be reevaluated.

In 1998, there were few films with African-American leads and even fewer telling intrinsically African-American stories. Hollywood did not have a robust infrastructure for marketing films to black audiences, and there were fewer black voices in film criticism. Although the industry could still stand to see some improvement, African-Americans are now better represented. Marketed as a prestige picture, Beloved, a picture about the horrors of the African American female experience, should have been part of that conversation. But instead of being championed by African-American women, largely defensive and misinformed white male critics and viewers got to it first and killed the conversation before it started.

The story of a former slave whose dead daughter returns to haunt her, Beloved is in many ways a horror movie, and not simply because of its supernatural elements. Demme and screenwriters Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks pull no punches in depicting the evils of slavery and the scars it left on its victims and the world. The film’s ethereal qualities and disjointedness, which many critics attacked, represent the damage sustained by the victims of slavery on every level: mental, physical and spiritual. Demme wisely enlisted long-time collaborator Tak Fujimoto (The Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs) to lens the film, and together they create a scarred, broken world.

The film’s complex and primarily female leading roles make it a rarity in big-budget productions, particularly for 1998. Winfrey and Lisa Gay Hamilton (from TV’s “The Practice”) play the lead, Sethe, at different ages, and both turn in effective performances playing very different sides of the same woman. While Hamilton ably shows Sethe as a young woman on the run, Winfrey is tasked with playing the strong but damaged older Sethe.

Kimberly Elise, a relative newcomer at the time, is extraordinary as Sethe’s daughter Denver, and Thandie Newton (a current standout in TV’s “Westworld”) plays the ghostly Beloved. Supporting actors Beah Richards (as the preaching Baby Suggs) and Danny Glover (as fellow slave Paul D) bring Morrison’s characters to vivid life as
Demme gives his actors the space and time to inhabit them, and you can sense the creative freedom in each player’s work.

Though its subject is radically different, Beloved is perhaps thematically linked to Demme’s previous narrative efforts, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. While spanning different genres and historical moments, all three films are violent observations of their time that can be difficult to watch, and its grimness may have led to Beloved’s poor reception at the time. It may have also been a matter of the times. The picture earned just one Oscar nomination, for costume design; contrast this with the three Oscars awarded to director Steve McQueen‘s 2013 drama 12 Years a Slave. Honest and forceful, Demme’s courage in highlighting difficult but vital subjects – the preying of men upon women, the seriousness of the AIDS crisis and the horrors of slavery – is a key to his legacy. Though arguably one of his most misunderstood films, Beloved is perhaps his bravest.

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