Reducing slavery to a talk-show topic

Alissa Quart
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FILM version of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, starring and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, the supreme schmoozer herself, opened in the US this weekend. It joins last winter's schmaltzy Amistad and this fall's putrid Civil War-era TV sitcom The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer as part of a wavelet of new American pop culture about slavery.

Representation of slavery began, on a mass level with the 1977 television series Roots. Some 130 million people watched as generations lived the African-American experience, from African slave trading to Sixties roots consciousness.

Beloved, the gothic psychodrama, a film Winfrey has aspired for 10 years to adapt (and star in, and finance with some of her queen-of-talk ransom), is a far cry from the Roots saga. And so is Morrison's fine, elliptical novel, which was inspired by the true story of a runaway slave. Morrison's Beloved was published in 1988, the same era in which critical books such as Henry Louis Gates's Signifying Monkey, which examined the rhetorical devices employed in slave narratives, were published. Beloved the novel shows the impact of studying those narratives. But Morrison does not confuse herself with her subject matter. However, in her film version of Beloved Winfrey seems to forget whose story it is. She told Time magazine that Roots "showed what slavery looked like, rather than what it felt like. You don't know what the whippings really did to us".

One of the film's downfalls is that, although Oprah's taken a work of fiction, a fabricated story told from the haunted reconstruction period about a mutilated, manacled past, she treats everything as fact. Beloved is not a basic introduction to slavery's history, as Roots was; instead, the film is alternately raw and overloaded with star power. It is ante- bellum kitsch that only a showbiz legend could pull off - think Streisand's shtetl survivor in Yentl.

What's best about Beloved is that it has no stifled reverence for its subject matter. It's also what's worst about it. The effort to show what slavery "felt" like means that the whip-scarred back of Sethe (Winfrey) is bared in scene after scene. "Feeling" suffering means that the film puts the brakes on its flow, so that each "problem" can be aired out. When wandering ex-slave and Sethe's lover Paul D (Danny Glover) converses with Sethe, we know she'll convey her tortured past, which she delivers as if it were a chat-show trauma.

Sethe lives with her sweetly pained, taciturn daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise). It's eight years after the Civil War - before the war, Sethe had killed a baby daughter so the girl would not have to become a slave, and, ostensibly, this dead daughter is still haunting Sethe and Denver, causing the dog to hit the wall, the jam jars to explode etc etc. The dead daughter arrives in the growling, seductive form of Beloved (Thandie Newton). The film has a cloistered feel, though given the large, grave themes and the near three-hour running time, it should be an epic.

Oprah has created a new genre: reconstructionist kitsch. Tables fly through the air and dishes break; the sky turns iodine red; characters can hypnotise. Oprah's no martyr. She's going for it, girl. She's brought in Oscar- winning hired-gun Jonathan Demme to direct.

There have been other instances of camp treatments of slavery lately, beside Beloved. Kara Walker, a black artist whose ironic scenes of plantation sex and sadism are drawn in 19th-century cut-paper silhouettes, has been a big hit with critics and buyers; and American Girls Collection has started selling the "Addy" doll, a slave from the Civil War era, determined to be free.

The quintessence of slavery kitsch is the TV show Desmond Pfeiffer, a civil war farce set in the Lincoln White House, where a black Brit is working as President Lincoln's butler. It has raised the hackles of a number of prominent black leaders and groups for its insensitive frivolity about race and the civil war era. Amistad's abolitionist utters the anachronistic line: "Would Christ have a lawyer to get him off on a technicality? He went to the cross nobly, to make a statement." But it also offended because it was starchy and manipulative emotionally. Amistad's protagonist was a slave with Hollywood-styling, who shouted "Give us free!" in a dewy- lit courtroom scene.

As for Beloved the movie, Winfrey is a bit like Spielberg with his Amistad. These movies mean well, but they contaminate the subject matter they touch with Hollywood showbiz stariness and egoism. Beloved also makes Oprah Winfrey not just a movie star, but also holy. Last week, she told Time that, while jogging, she sometimes hears the voices of "Negro slaves" and calls them in "to guide her in her work".