Learning From ‘Beloved’s’ Failure
A black man in a Hollywood movie walks into a haunted house and doesn’t immediately turn and run the other way. You take your breakthroughs wherever you can find them--though no review of “Beloved” that I saw took note of this scene as a breakthrough.
By now, however, most major newspapers and magazines have taken note of how swiftly the Oprah Winfrey-produced adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been transformed in industry eyes from Sure Thing to Cautionary Tale. Aficionados of celebrity crash-and-burn at its most extravagant have reveled (too much, I think) in watching Oprah’s Oscar Triumph morph into Oprah’s Box-Office Waterloo. Worse, industry mavens have attached a toe tag to this movie even as it continues to play at a theater near you.
Does “Beloved” deserve such treatment? No more than it deserved the hosannas that garlanded its arrival in the multiplexes. To these eyes, the movie was so faithful to the book (or, more accurately, to the experience of reading the book) that its characters, instead of connecting with each other, seemed to be speaking at each other from their respective outposts of solitude. Such diffuseness, whether deliberate or not, doesn’t help a movie audience stay with the story, and unless you had read the book--or, in some cases, even if you had--it’s hard to keep track of which of the people who appear in front of you are among the living or the dead. And yet, it’s because of such daunting narrative challenges that the movie invades your dreams and refuses to leave quietly.
Most commercial American films are pleasant to watch while you’re in the theater and leave you empty and wanting afterward. Even people who liked “Beloved” have told me they found it tough to sit through. Yet they tell me that the movie has haunted them as few major studio releases even attempt to do these days. For this and for the great performances by all concerned--Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, the underrated Kimberly Elise, the redoubtable Beah Richards and Winfrey, so absorbing in the role of Sethe that she makes you forget that she’s Oprah Winfrey--"Beloved” deserves far more respect than it’s been getting in the press.
But we’re in a time when financial success is more conspicuously--and thoughtlessly--linked to artistic success. The numbers, we’re told, don’t lie: A $55-million movie, coming in with all the hype and hoopla that its ubiquitous and powerful producer-star can muster on its behalf, makes only $21 million in a month. (The Washington Post placed this in stark contrast with the $39 million made by the doofus comedy “The Waterboy” in its first weekend.)
A few lessons have been tenderly extracted from “Beloved’s” tribulations. There is, for instance, the notion that slavery or any other serious topic related to blacks have no future as subjects for theatrical movies. “Beloved’s” example has been buttressed by the dismal box-office of last year’s “Amistad” and “Rosewood,” offering a cold slap in the face to the black filmmakers who entered this decade believing they could finally tell “their stories” on the big screen to “their audiences.”
Telling is one thing. Selling is another. High-mindedness has little chance against low-brow schlock, whether aimed at black or white audiences.
OK, so maybe we’re not in the mood for deep, long dips into the horrific past as we sit on the next century’s doorstep. That’s not to say things won’t change. Or that there won’t be other approaches to black history, even more inventive and ennobling than “Beloved’s,” that will connect with the mass audience’s collective viscera the way “Roots” did on television.
Right now, however, I think black filmmakers’ best hope for artistic and financial fulfillment within the commercial marketplace is to infiltrate established formulas. Romances and soap operas such as “Soul Food” and “Eve’s Bayou” have turned the heads of studio heads with their success. The “gangsta” subgenre, though now exhausted, got a lot of mileage from reinventing “Scarface” and other 1930s progenitors. So where are the black “E.T.s” or “Terminators”? Or “Rear Windows”?
In any case, the success or failure of any one movie should never be allowed to set the table for what comes afterward. As recent election results proved once again, there are three rules that pundits, politicians and, for that matter, movie moguls keep forgetting when they try to assess mass tastes from a distance: Nobody knows anything, nobody knows anything and--my favorite--nobody knows anything.