Three days before shooting started on the film "Beloved," based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, Winfrey was sitting blindfolded under a tree in rural Maryland and, she says, "weeping hysterically."
Nothing to do with the film itself, this scene was part of a live reenactment, organized by Winfrey with the help of a historian, in which Winfrey was transported back to 1861 and treated like a slave. It was a way, she says, of helping her connect with her character, Sethe, a former slave who carries an unbearable burden of memories of beatings, rape and loss of family members, including her own baby daughter. Winfrey wanted to know: What does that really feel like?
"At first I'm going, 'Oh this is so silly,' " Winfrey recalls, "but then I really got into it. And it was life-transforming for me. They had this guy portraying a slave master, and he starts talking to me like, 'You're a nigger woman and you're going to do what I say.' And I would say, 'I think there's been a mistake.' And he said, 'You don't think nothin' because you belong to me.' And I came to a point where I understood what it was like. I knew."
Tears start pouring down her face at the memory. "It was so scary--scary, painful and hollow . . . like death with no salvation." After 24 hours of verbal degradation, she says, she understood her character's "iron-willed ability to beat back the past" and "what it took to maintain your humanity in a world that said you had none."
Winfrey, who bought the rights to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book shortly after it was published in 1988 and spent almost eight years searching for the right script and the right director, is not the only one involved with "Beloved" to connect so emotionally with the past in the making of this nearly three-hour film.
Director Jonathan Demme says he wept when he first read the script (by Richard LaGravenese) and felt a crusading urge to tell "a rich, epic story" about a period of American history that is rarely told. His goal, he says, was to humanize the experience of ex-slaves, to bring to the screen complex African American characters who are not pitiable, sentimental stick figures, but complicated people, their pain placed firmly in the context of daily life. Glover calls his part as Paul D, a former slave who had known Sethe years earlier at the Kentucky plantation Sweet Home, "probably the most important role of my life." Morrison, though she mourns some missing pieces of the book, nevertheless says she was "stunned" by the film's evocation of her work--which Winfrey in turn calls "an offering."
Perhaps not everyone would associate the No. 1 talk-show host with such a literary undertaking--though for the last two years she has devoted a segment of her show to books and authors, 19 altogether--but Winfrey says she is a longtime admirer of Morrison, and she has brought to bear all her clout as one of the most influential African American women in the world in publicizing Morrison's books.
As well as being the driving force to bring "Beloved" to the screen, Winfrey featured on her show "Song of Solomon" and Morrison's latest best-selling novel, "Paradise," for which she has also bought the film rights. She also televised a dinner at her Chicago home to which she invited Morrison and four female viewers to discuss Morrison's work. And she initiated and televised a seminar at Princeton (where Morrison is Robert F. Goheen professor of humanities) in which the writer led a discussion on "Paradise" among a mixed group of Winfrey viewers, friends and academics.
As a result, sales of Morrison's seven novels shot up 40% for her entire backlist for the first six months of 1998. "Beloved," which has been through 30 printings in hardback, will be re-released in special hard- and paperback editions in conjunction with the film.
'Overwhelmed, somewhat numb, devastated but hopeful," is how Winfrey describes her initial reaction to "Beloved," which she read from start to finish one Saturday in 1988.
"I felt what slavery was like instead of intellectually understanding it," she says in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel here. "I felt the humanity of our people--that it added a breadth and depth and knowledge of the heart. What it did for me--and what we try to do in the film--is, it doesn't explain the humanity of black people in any way, it just assumes it." Nevertheless, she adds, although the book depicted "the black experience . . . it's also the absolute human experience. That's what I've understood for years--that we are all as human beings more alike than we are different. And I wanted other people to see that, to appreciate it, to feel what I had felt."
After finishing the book, Winfrey tracked down Morrison's home phone number in Grandview-on-Hudson, N.Y. (through the local fire department), and told her she wanted to make the book into a film.
"She laughed at me," Winfrey says, smiling. "It was a throw-back-your-head, kind of 'ha-ha' laugh. She was like, 'Oh nonsense, ridiculous. You want to make a movie? I don't know how you're going to do that.' "
Morrison admits she was "not really attracted by the idea. You know, my students think that a novel is what you do before the film, but I say, can't it just be a book?" she says at the office of her New York publisher, Knopf, her voice tired and whispery after an exhausting book tour for "Paradise."
She knew a movie would be different from the book. "What movies do when they're good is to make images real, which for me is a reduction because language is flexible and depends very heavily on what the reader brings to it and how the reader changes." She also feared seeing her characters' faces on screen because "in a sense that fixes" them.
But, she adds, "Oprah was in earnest, and she had good faith, and I couldn't say no."
Morrison was not the only one who couldn't visualize "Beloved" as a film. Part history (it's set in 1873), part ghost story, part romance, part the story of overweening mother love, part discovery of self, filled with flashbacks and lyrical prose, the book is not obviously filmic in its structure.
"People thought it was too literary," Winfrey says. But she had a gut feeling that it would work. "I didn't know how. I just knew. The way would be shown to me. I just didn't know it would be a decade later!"
After years of talking to numerous screenwriters and directors--rejected largely because they either wanted to have complete control of the production or couldn't accept the idea of Winfrey's playing Sethe--Winfrey sent a script to Demme ("Philadelphia") over Christmas of 1996, simply because, Winfrey says, he's "one of the great American directors." This was the final script by LaGravenese, whose credits include "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Bridges of Madison County"; there were subsequent additions by Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia.
Demme called back within a month to say he was interested. His only reservation had to do with Winfrey's playing Sethe, partly because of what he calls "the Oprah factor"--perhaps moviegoers wouldn't be able to distinguish the character from the icon--but also because "she had an impressive but minimal body of film work." She played Sofia in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" (1985), based on Alice Walker's book, and Bigger Thomas' mother in Jerrold Freedman's "Native Son" (1986), based on the novel by Richard Wright. Since then she has had a number of television roles, many of them in her own productions, such as "The Women of Brewster Place."
Over a long dinner, however, Winfrey impressed Demme with "her vision and passion for the piece and her connection to the character of Sethe." He was not disappointed. "From the very first dailies, she was magnificent," he says.
Work on the film was delayed until June 1997 because Winfrey could only film during the summer when she wasn't shooting shows. Winfrey "double- and triple-taped" shows to clear more time, all the while working toward her character in her thoughts.
One unexpected acting aid was a lawsuit filed against Winfrey in February 1996 by Texas' beef industry, which claimed a loss of more than $11 million after Winfrey questioned the safety of American meat on her show. The suit was thrown out by a federal jury earlier this year in a victory for Winfrey that was also hailed by free speech advocates as a blow against the proliferation of state laws muting criticism of food industry products.
"I was sitting in a room giving my deposition with all these Texas men, and, of course, I was the only black person in the room, and they were just attacking me, attacking me, attacking me," Winfrey recalls. "One of the lawyers was sitting in the back, chewing tobacco and spitting it into a cup while he was talking to me, and I thought, 'OK, now I know where I am.' I flashed to the scene in 'Beloved' of: 'They took my milk.' [A horrifying flashback in the film in which a pregnant Sethe is forcibly suckled by her slave master's sons.] I thought, 'Yeah, I'm going to use this later.' "
Winfrey says she stayed focused on the historical importance of the film by keeping in her trailer on the set copies of slave records that she has collected over the years.
"I would say their names every morning: Amis, 26 years old, $900; Anna, 12 years old, $400; and I would say a prayer. And as I was doing each scene, I would call up the names of those ancestors and say, 'I'm doing this for you.' "
That crusading zeal permeated the filming process for everyone. Glover thought of his grandparents, born in the 1890s in rural Georgia, and of the stories they told him growing up. For him, the film was part of a sense of history that helped transform the project. "There were no egos. It was all in service to the material."
Part of the cast and crew's closeness--which Winfrey calls "synergy" and Demme describes as "a love fest"--stemmed from friendships and long collaborations already in place. Winfrey and Morrison knew each other from Winfrey's book show--though Winfrey says she is "too much in awe" of Morrison to consider her a friend--while Demme and Glover were old friends from having worked together on activist causes involving the liberation of Haiti, although they had never worked on the same film. Winfrey and Glover knew each other from working on "The Color Purple," in which Glover played the character of Mister.
But there was also, apparently, an instant connection with the new members of the group: Kimberly Elise, who plays Sethe's younger daughter, Denver; Thandie Newton, Beloved; Beah Richards, Baby Suggs; Albert Hall, Stamp Paid; and the others.
This began with a first read-through of the script with Morrison at Winfrey's farm in Indiana where, as Winfrey puts it, "we sat at Toni's feet and listened to her tell us about 'Beloved.' "
Morrison laughs. "It didn't look that way to me! No, they read from the script and I fussed. You know, I teach, so I have no compunctions about telling people what to do."
"It was all very relaxed and wonderful," says Demme, adding that Morrison continued as an unofficial part of the movie-making process, always available to answer questions from the cast. Actors carried the book around on the set, constantly thumbing pages when questions about characterization or setting arose. Glover says he reread the book word by word, writing out whole passages verbatim as well as his own commentary about his character.
"Every word becomes delicate," he says. "It becomes your blood, your breath, as an actor."
One of the main talking points among the cast was the nature of the character Beloved, a mysterious young lady who shows up out of the blue one day at Sethe's house on Bluestone Road just outside Cincinnati. Who is she? Where does she come from? As a symbolic figure, she is easily identified as the hurt soul of all black people and their resultant all-consuming rage. In the book, Morrison also leaves several options open. She might be the ghost of Sethe's murdered older daughter--whose invisible presence haunts her house until Paul D drives it away--or she might be a strange girl whose body is inhabited by Beloved's ghost. One option, never addressed by the film, is that Beloved might be Sethe's real daughter, who survived her murder attempt at age 2 to be kept prisoner by a white man for his sexual pleasure--until he dies and she escapes, as a grown woman, seeking refuge at Sethe's house.
Morrison would have liked this last dimension of Beloved to be in the film, even though the film works without it, because "it was extremely important in the book." She says she created a range of options for the reader to ponder because they represent "all the options of history." Demme admits that it was this layering aspect of the book that had to be cut in the interests of streamlining the movie and keeping a strong narrative.
Instead, Demme emphasizes the present in the movie, retaining elements of the past in the form of quick, often horrific flashes--Paul D in a pronged slave collar; Sethe's mother hanging from a tree; Sethe's milk scene; uplifting moments taken from a sermon by Sethe's mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, about black people feeling their own power--all in grainy sepia print, an idea he took from Werner Herzog's hallucinatory "Kaspar Hauser," to give a sense of real human memory, of the way painful things slip into the mind and are quickly pushed away. Only the flashback narrative of Sethe's journey north, during which she gives birth to Denver, is filmed straight, since the film focuses on her story.
As for Beloved, Demme says, he chose to emphasize the idea of a spirit wandering from body to body because it reflects the literal wanderings of ex-slaves during that period--shown most concretely in Paul D's 18-year trek before finding Sethe--and symbolized in the film by the constant stream of people passing back and forth along Bluestone Road in front of Sethe's haunted house.
Still, all the cast members have their own interpretations.
"To me," says Winfrey, "Beloved was a ghost and she was Sethe's daughter and she came back. Newton feels she was the girl held in the basement, possessed, and that the spirit of the baby took over her body. She studied babies, the way they walked, the way they're open and vulnerable. She just opened herself up. . . . Like the scene where Denver is showing her the chicken coop and she just takes the baby bird and puts it in her mouth. She just responded to everything as a child would."
Morrison says she finds the acting "refreshing" and "powerful." She's especially glad that Thandie Newton (whose name in her native Zambia means "Beloved") "didn't do a charming, seductive number. . . . She has that unsettled quality, which is what I really wanted, because the history she represents is so disruptive, so chaotic."
As Morrison says, while you're watching the film (or reading the book), "You want Beloved out. I wanted her to be like the past, which has a claim, which you resist because it's so unmanageable, demanding, greedy."
This works well in contrast to the way Elise plays Denver, "who was so still, but there was a lot going on," she says. "Every time she came on the screen, your eyes went to her." Thus Denver's stillness and growth to maturity, which represents a hopeful future, is a powerful counter to Beloved's "grotesque" physicality, which symbolizes the chaotic past, she says.
For Sethe, Winfrey says, Morrison's help was invaluable for understanding her character's tamped-down emotions, her ability to keep from going insane despite the horrendous traumas she lived through--and her "arrogance."
"I said to Toni, 'Arrogant? I don't think she's arrogant.' So Toni said, 'Well, what is she then? She was arrogant in that she never bowed down and that is why the people in the town were upset by her.' That was difficult for me."
Morrison chuckles. "That was the good part about the movie, having really good conversations about it!" She did give Winfrey "all kinds of instructions," she says, especially about Sethe's pride, which was what gave her "a tragic quality."
Indeed, she adds, an important aspect of the book is the exploration of how to negotiate a position between overbearing pride and too much humility.
"I told Oprah not to cry. She cries easily and earnestly and without embarrassment. But that's not Sethe. I told her, make us cry--but you don't cry."
Demme agrees: "If Oprah had any work to do it was not to confuse her empathy with how Sethe feels."
A tough call, according to Winfrey. "I mean, I'm Miss Passion." Every time the makeup artists put the "tree" on her back--the scar Sethe bears from a beating at Sweet Home, which she shows to Paul D--she became "literally nauseous," she says. As for the scene in which she talks about the boys taking her milk from her, "I would just start to go."
Demme was gentle, telling her to focus on what she was doing in the scene--making biscuits--rather than the story she was telling. "He said, 'Just tell the story; remember your iron will, because you've already lived through the worst of it.' " It was still painful, she says. "There were days when I would do scenes and I would be aching inside my bones."
What of her own life? Surely it helped to think of her own tough moments? Winfrey has talked openly about her sexual molestation as a child, her disciplinarian upbringing. She shakes her head.
"I just think of that as what you have to do. OK, I think I have strength of character, but I don't think of myself as iron-willed."
Morrison says Winfrey was successful. "When I saw the movie, I didn't confuse Sethe with Oprah, or with Oprah as a brand name. And I thought that was an enormous achievement. It had nuance."
Perhaps one of the film's greatest achievements is the sense of intimacy between Glover as Paul D and Winfrey as Sethe. Both had a sense of making history during their love scene.
"I remember watching 'The Cosby Show' some years ago, and I wondered why I was crying," Winfrey says. "It was because Bill had laid his head in Phylicia Rashad's lap and she was stroking his brow, and I had never seen that before with black people. Not, you know, humping and bumping in bed, not some jive love triangle, but just a tender stroking of the head."
It's the same sweet quality that makes Sethe and Paul D's scene special, she says. Still, she found it hard. "I hadn't kissed another man other than Stedman [her fiance, Stedman Graham] in 12 years, and never done any love scenes."
"Well," Glover says, "I had never done a love scene like that either." To do it, he says, "you just think about what love is and let that go out."
For Winfrey, it took more work. "Jonathan had a long talk with me. . . . 'You just need to move to that space where you understand that kissing is a wonderful thing, and you're going to be in bed with Danny all day long, and by the end of the day I'm sure you'll find a way to enjoy it.' "
She bursts out laughing.
"When I called Stedman at home, he didn't want to talk about it. He said, 'How was your day?' And I said, 'It was just the weirdest thing, you go to work, you put on a G-string and you're lying in bed with a guy you don't know.' And he says, 'How's Sophie and Solomon [her dogs]?!"'
Clearly, people are going to have a complicated reaction this film, especially fans of the author. Morrison says she had to see the film three times before it stopped clashing with her own ideas about the work. She saw the final cut with her sons and a group of scholarly friends who have taught her work for many years, "so they had powerful intellectual and emotional vested interests." Some reacted with "stunned ecstasy," others were "argumentative," she says. Nobody was indifferent.
The film is "provocative, and I like that quality," she says.
Despite the difficult subject matter of the film, Winfrey believes that everyone will relate to it because it's about building a better life out of the ashes of a terrible past, and is as redemptive as any of the upbeat messages she puts out on her show.
Indeed, this fall, in addition to a segment that will be devoted to promoting "Beloved," she plans one focused on "Change Your Life."
"I'll be trying to get people to connect to the memories of who they really are, really build on true self-discovery. All life to me is exactly what Sethe did, remembering. So when you have an 'aha' moment in your life, it's really remembering the truth, because you know it anyway."
Clearly, "Beloved" has changed Winfrey's life. When she was going through the live reenactment of slavery just before filming, she made an important decision.
"At that time, I was thinking of not going on with the [television] show. I had thought that I'll get into this movie and I'll make more movies and it'll just be great, I won't have to do 200 shows a year. But . . . how can you come from no voice--from a legacy of 'your thoughts don't even belong to you'--to now being able to speak to the world. I decided I couldn't give it up."
When the filming was over, she says, "I came out of it with a newfound sense of: I believe I can fly. I came out of it thinking now I understand bitterness, but bitterness is a choice. [In "Beloved"] they had nothing but their own inner strength. It makes me think that the possibility is there--if you're willing to extend yourself, you can--because we come from a people that had no possibilities."