Reducing slavery to a talk-show topic

Alissa Quart

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".

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all