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As perhaps the greatest women’s-book-group novel ever, Toni Morrison’s Beloved deserves a monument, and that’s just what director Jonathan Demme and star and co-producer Oprah Winfrey have erected. Their nearly three-hour-long treatment of the book is less an adaptation than a homage, a stately sound-and-light show of the narrative highlights of Morrison’s fearful saga.
Just as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan won points for “realism” by being the first World War II film to ape the mock-doc style of Oliver Stone’s Platoon, so Demme’s film has been hailed as “tragic” for borrowing tricks from The Shining, The Exorcist, and Don’t Look Now. His Beloved is a horror moviewhich is not entirely inappropriate to the story it tells but which ultimately does seem a failure of imagination. To viewers who’ve seen a few arty thrillers, Beloved will seem almost familiar; it’s as much The Silence of the Lambs as it is a catharsis of America’s defining infamy.
That the movie is more obvious than the book is, of course, inevitable; the filmmakers couldn’t transfer to celluloid Morrison’s Faulknerian prose or her characters’ internal monologues. Putting Beloved on the screen makes it both more sensational and more sentimental, as Demme alternates Nicolas Roeg-style shock cuts with elegiac shots of the Ohio (actually Pennsylvania) countrysideand mournful country blues with soundtrack composer Rachel Portman’s treacly Afro-chorales, sung by Oumou Sangare and the African Children’s Choir.
As most people who see the movie will already know, Beloved tells the story of Sethe (Winfrey), who lives with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) near Cincinnati. Formerly a slave on the Kentucky side of the river, Sethe escaped while pregnant and managed to deliver Denver as she made her way to the house of her mother-in-law Baby Suggs (Beah Richards), a popular preacher. By 1873, when the flashback-heavy story formally begins, Baby Suggs is dead and Sethe’s two sons have fled, unable to bear the attacks of their home’s malevolent ghost, the spirit of Sethe’s other daughter. Then Paul D (Danny Glover), a former slave on the same plantation that Sethe escaped, arrives. He and Sethe quickly fall into a domestic arrangement, and the family seems restored when a fly-ridden young woman (Thandie Newton, last enslaved in the stuffy Jefferson in Paris) drags herself out of the swamp and croakingly introduces herself as “Beloved.” This is the phantasm of Sethe’s lost daughter, made flesh again 18 years after the death whose chilling circumstances the movieunlike the bookholds in reserve as its Sophie’s Choice-style shocker. Newton’s histrionic performance, while true to horror-flick conventions, has an odd effect: It makes all the other actors look dignified by comparison.
As conceived by Winfrey, Demme, and scripters Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks, Beloved is as much about healing as horror. The scarred (physically and emotionally) Sethe and Paul D turn the former’s haunted house into a normal home, the previously homebound Denver considers going to college, and Baby Suggs’ sermonsshot with a whirling camera that transforms her forest get-togethers into pagan ecstasiescontain a self-actualization message that wouldn’t seem out of place on Oprah. Amusingly, Beloved also resembles the low-rent Practical Magic, which too was co-scripted by Brooks. Both culminate with an exorcism, and both feature exuberant (if narratively inert) female-bonding revelries.
Where Practical Magic is sitcomishly bright, however, Beloved remains resolutely dim. Longtime Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto shot most of the scenes in shadow or silhouetted against milky light, while rendering the earliest flashbacks in bleached-out color. As with the movie’s leisurely fades-to-black, the effect is distancing, as if the filmmakers thought that approaching the novel too closely be would disrespectful. Lurid as it is in places, the film remains deferential to the original. Beloved celebrates Morrison’s literary vision even as it apologizes for defiling it.
It’s not just Hollywood special-effects flicks that routinely begin shooting with a vestigial script. Much the same thing can happen, albeit usually for different reasons, in the low-budget world. Take, for example, Slam, an underwritten Sundance sensation. Documentarian Marc Levin’s fiction-feature debut transports you inside the exotic demimonde of Southeast drug dealers and D.C. Jail inmates. What it shows you there, however, is both aimless and unpersuasive.
Slam’s protagonist is Ray Joshua (gangly Saul Williams, his limbs almost as thin as his dreadlocks), a poet and a pot dealer. A gentle soul even though he consorts with gangsters and lives on mean cul-de-sacs, Ray is stunned when a friend is shot while he’s talking to him, and really put out when the cops who quickly arrive bust him for possession. “It’s just weed,” he protests.
Ray is sent to D.C. Jail in the same van as abrasively outraged Jimmy Huang (performance poet Beau Sia), who loudly protests his jailing. Ray doesn’t like prison, either, but he keeps the predators at bay by reciting his cosmic doggerel, which also attracts comely writing teacher Lauren Bell (Sonja Sohn). Jailed crime boss Hopha (Bonz Malone) tells Ray, “You have more talent than you even know”a comment designed to cue those members of the audience who didn’t recognize the genius in lines like “I’ll dance a million tomorrows in the sun rays of the moon waves”and pays his bail. On the outside, Ray makes implausible peace between rival gangs, attends a poetry party (whose guests include Washington City Paper staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates), and falls into bed with Lauren. Then Ray attends a U Street poetry slam, is convinced (with no great difficulty) to perform, and triumphs. Art easily defeats the streeta moral that apparently plays well at art-film festivals in Utah mountain resorts.
Drawing on both his documentary background and MTV’s visual vocabulary, Levin stages some edgy, kinetic scenes. He keeps the camera rolling for several remarkable one-take performances, notably when Ray verse-jams with the prisoner in the next cell and when Ray and Lauren quarrel in a Capitol Hill alley. (But the content of the argument, in which Lauren argues that Ray’s pot dealing is somehow responsible for her former crack addiction, is just silly.) Such sequences are buttressed by a strong art-hop score from former City Paper intern Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky.
Alas, Slam is only a loose collection of moments, and while some are electric, many others are contrived. Levin, co-producer Richard Stratton, and lead performers Williams, Sohn, and Malone (who all share writing credits) sketched the story as they went along, and the result is shapeless and haphazard. Jimmy Huang is a distraction, but there are more egregious ones, notably Marion Barry as a judge who proclaims, “These drugs are killing our community.” The film is full of vague and often sentimental pronouncements about the urban narcotics trade and the criminal justice system, but making Barry one of its anti-drug talking heads sends the thing sliding toward farce.
Most members of the Slam team are New Yorkers, and despite their willingness to visit unglamorous parts of D.C., they soon reveal themselves as out-of-towners. In one scene, Ray exits a Metro train at Cleveland Park in order to get to 14th and U; in another, he takes a stroll on the Mall late at night, rambling contemplatively toward the Washington Monument. (Maybe lots of Southeast pot brokers enjoy quality time among the monuments of federal Washington, but when the feds lured a hapless local dealer to Lafayette Park for the purposes of a President Bush anti-drug address, they had to explain to the guy where it was.)
The movie includes such black-nationalist cant as Ray’s announcement that blacks killing blacks is “the master plan,” but its politics evaporate as the paroled poet approaches the stage for his slam debut. Rather than put its hope in verse, Slam should have gathered the fortitude to tell Sundance the news: that the policy of guaranteed long sentences for possession of small amounts of drugs is flat-out racistand that Ray needs poetry a lot less than he needs a good lawyer.CP