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. …