by Amulya Noone
The film Beloved, was directed by Jonathon Demme and released in 1998. It was based off of the novel Beloved which was written by Toni Morrison in 1987. The film follows Sethe, a former slave, and her family and friends as they get haunted by a ghost. In the past, in a moment of distress, she wanted to kill her family. She believed her family was going to be forced back into slavery. At the time though, she only got around to killing one daughter before she was enslaved again. The daughter who was killed, Beloved, comes back to haunt the family in the future. The film switches from past to present to tell the story of how Sethe and her family have to live with past decisions and try to move on to the future. It portrays a family trying to build a new life, but being held back.
In the film, there are three main characters: Sethe, Beloved (ghost/Sethe’s daughter), and Denver (Sethe’s daughter). These characters are played by Oprah Winfrey/Lisa Gay Hamilton (younger Sethe), Thandie Newton, and Kimberly Elise respectively. These actors and director, worked together to make a horror drama film, which explores the many obstacles that African Americans had to go through and still have to go through now.
Historical and Cultural Context
Beloved brings a lot of attention to the before and after of the civil war. Through the nonlinear timeline, the film highlights the pre-civil war era and the Reconstruction period. It mirrors a lot of the conditions and events that slaves lived through at that time. Some obstacles that were addressed include sexual assault, the oppressive system they lived through, and the Fugitive Slave Law. The inclusion of these critical events, bring about a deeper understanding to the film. Literary scholar Fischerova, from the University of Texas, argues that Demme and Morrison “reconstructs knowledges, histories, and identities, all of which allow for the inclusion of the African American subject and the African American experience.” This film is based on getting the truth out, basing a lot of the emotions portrayed off of the Africans who had to travel here on slave ships and endure the terrible treatment on their way here and after their arrival.
Accordingly, this film if based off of former slave, Margaret Garner’s life. Garner and her family, 9 years before the end of slavery, tried to escape their owners in January 1856. During their escape attempt though, they were apprehended by the U.S. Marshals. In that moment, Garner was afraid that her family would be enslaved again and decided to kill her daughter. She did not want her to go back to those horrible conditions. When this occurred, there was a lot of controversy about her actions. In the end though, Garner and her family ended up being put into jail and sold once again.
Through the story of the Margaret Garner and the memories of former slaves, the director forms an image of the culture the African Americans had built in the past. One major part of their culture, is their lack of language. In the film, the ghost’s lack of coherent speech and Sethe’s speech, shows how slaves never got the chance to form their own language. “Language has been denied them,” states Fuston-White. Eventually, as slaves were forced to move here, they had to forget their own cultures and mimic what was forced on to them. Later on, after the civil war, African Americans were left to figure out this tangle of culture and beliefs. Being brought up one way, forced to change with no choice, it later brings up the question which way should they go? This struggle between cultures was highlighted through the scars on Sethe’s back. Her scars represent a tree and that tree is continuously showing growth. The flesh which represents people may be dead, but the tree (the culture) is continuing to grow and it slowly leaks out in certain situations, situations of oppression.
Not only that, but through the horror drama genre, the director brings up some African American folk culture. This include supernatural elements that also explain how things were before. A big part their culture includes ghosts and how they visited people. These stories abut visitations were more than about hauntings, they were history lessons and fables. The ghosts are the ones who connected the people to their beliefs of the supernatural. This is important to the film, because it is based off of Beloved’s ghost and how Sethe and her family build their new lives around Beloved’s memory, her lessons.
Themes and Style
Throughout the film, Demme develops the theme of moving forward. Beloved addresses the idea of learning to live with the past and working to make the future better through the help of the community. In the film, all the characters are trying to get used to this new area, this new place they are calling home, and are trying to work through the confusion and anxiety they feel. For example, one character, Paul D. Garner, had a really hard time moving forward. As a child, he did not grow up in a stable environment and this leads him to make bad decisions. Additionally, living through slavery makes it even harder for him to know what is right or wrong. It is not till after he moves past his history, that he starts becoming the man that Sethe needs. Part of him moving forward included learning from the ghost Beloved and understanding what she was trying to say.
This idea of moving forward is something that many people have trouble with now. There are judgmental looks and stereotypes that people are trying to get past, so they can build the life that they want. These people are only able to move forward with the help of their community. When the people they surround themselves with, stop to talk and help them, they can learn to live in the present and work for the future. The film explores the theme of community and home through the town that Sethe and her family lives in. In this town, the residents depend on each other; they all have a history with slavery and understand what each person is going through. This allows them to reliably help each other figure out problems and move forward. In the present day, towns and minorities depend on each other to help them get past any obstacles and to help each other grow.
The director, Demme, is able to develop these themes through the use of two stylistic choices. These stylistic choices include the horror drama genre and the nonlinear plot line. When this film was directed, most other films about African Americans were negative and filled with stereotypes. The horror drama genre though, added depth to the story and a cultural aspect. It showed its viewers the psychological influences of slavery. It addressed what people went through at that time and how it changed their mind and actions.
Additionally, making Beloved a ghost rather than just a memory, added depth to her character. Viewers saw her lack of growth and her mental age. For example, when Beloved was introduced, she seems to be an adult, but instead has a little voice, does not know how to walk properly without stumbling, and does not eat properly. Beloved does not know how to act appropriately; she has the mindset of a child. Fischerova, in her thesis, states that the genre shows how slavery was the “central horror.”
Figure 2 tony gx. ”Beloved” Online video clip. YoutTube.Youtube, 9 Jun 2010.
The nonlinear story line, although slightly confusing, helped build on each memory and the influences it has on the present. This style also reflected the emotions and life that Sethe had. It portrayed the shakiness and uneasiness of her life; it incorporates the self-doubt and the horror (Ebert). Additionally, the nonlinear plot line highlighted two aspects, the institutional and oppressive sides, of slavery and brought it to the forefront (Fischerova). The institutional side brought up included the laws and rule that restricted the slaves. Through the past images, the government’s control over African Americans was shown. The oppressive side was brought up mainly in the present parts of the plot line. It includes the stereotypes and the power the past and other people had on these people in the town. These people were oppressed by the judgments and the memories of the past.
When this film was first released, a lot of the public and critics believed the film had no meaning, that it was too gory and cliché. They thought it was too confusing, and did not give the novel any justice. In a review written by Roger Ebert, he acknowledged that some people would find the movie “convoluted.” Anissa Wardi, from the African American Review, also stated that the film does not reach its full potential; she thought that it was too Poltergeist like and did not allow the audience to understand the characters. At the same time though, this type of movie was not the norm. Demme made choices that were considerably different, and many people were not ready to see what slaves went through from this different aspect.
Now, many people appreciate the film. Scholar Fischerova in her thesis published by Masaryk University, stated that the film is now being applauded for breaking the norms and taking the extra step. The extra step that was taken was the goriness and the honesty behind each scene. Although the public may not like the story, the fact that the film “rips the veil,” gives the film more artistic appeal(Brit). It “rips the veil” by addressing the dirt and grit of the obstacles African Americans went through, and by not covering up the truth. Demme did not coddle the audience. Fischerova, states that the critics from the past made the mistake of treating this film as a “mainstream Hollywood film.” The film now is widely recognized for going against mainstream movies and dealing with the impact of slavery. One person even called it a “mainstream hit about slavery.” African American scholar Lynda Koolish talks about the film’s exploration of painful memories and how it showed the way people’s minds were affected. Additionally, she talks about how the film teaches its audiences about past choices and how they affect the present.
Something that critics have considered, is the medium this film was presented in. Some believe if this story was recreated as a television show, something that would help break everything down, more people would come to appreciate it. Instead of sitting down for three continuous hours, being shown continuous scenes of harsh reality, people would be able to understand the plot and be given more time to take in all the lessons the film is trying to address. Overall, appreciation for this film is starting grow, because people are starting to understand all the details and how many standards it pushed.
Bennett, Brit. “Ripping the Veil.” New Republic, New Republic., 2 Aug. 2016, newrepublic.com/article/135708/colson-whiteheads-fantastic-voyage.
Ebert, Roger. “Beloved Movie Review & Film Summary (1998) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC, 16 Oct. 1998, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/beloved-1998.
Fischerova, Anna. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: The Novel and the Film.” Masaryk University. April 2006. https://is.muni.cz/th/85669/ff_b/B._A.pdf.
Fuston-White, Jeanna. “‘From the Seen to the Told’: The Construction of Subjectivity in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 3, 2002, pp. 461–473. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1512209.
Koolish, Lynda. “‘To Be Loved and Cry Shame’: A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’” MELUS, vol. 26, no. 4, 2001, pp. 169–195. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3185546.
Wardi, Anissa Janine. “Freak Shows, Spectacles, and Carnivals: Reading Jonathan Demme’s ‘Beloved.’” African American Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 2005, pp. 513–526. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40033690.
Gay, Roxane. “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/25/opinion/hbo-confederate-slavery-civil-war.html.
George, Sheldon. “Approaching the ‘Thing’ of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 115–130. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23783440.
Gerima, Haile, and Pamela Woolford. “Filming Slavery.” Transition, no. 64, 1994, pp. 90–104. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2935310.
Stoddard, Jeremy D., and Alan S. Marcus. “More Than ‘Showing What Happened’: Exploring the Potential of Teaching History with Film.” The High School Journal, vol. 93, no. 2, 2010, pp. 83–90. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40660845.
Keywords: Beloved, Demme, Horror, Morrison, Community, Moving Forward, Slavery