Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.
Love creates and destroys. Mix in post-traumatic stress disorder and you’ll never know which until it’s too late. Evil can permeate your soul and color your psychology in ways that merge right and wrong into a singular goal seeking survival. To endure horror is to alter everything you were, your innocence lost no matter how hard you try to reclaim it. The thought of experiencing the nightmare again—or having it find you within a place you believed safe—is enough to shake you to the core with a fear so blinding that instinct takes over once the memory of those who brought it transposes atop those who might be just as bad. And as evil consumes you, there’s nowhere left to go but straight into its arms.
Because evil can make you do tragic things, its hold rendering immoral acts a heinous means to pure ends. And if it breaks you into embracing it without force, you find that it lives deep within. You think the victim of your misguided intent haunts you, but it’s really you haunting yourself. The memories of what was done to you and what you did to fight back become permanently branded beneath your skin, forever threatening to consume you whole. You try escaping. You try to surround yourself with distractions and happiness that only strengthen its hold as they increase your guilt. You survived at a cost your mind cannot quite reconcile. You acted unimaginably because your situation was unimaginable. But you punish yourself for it just the same.
There have been so many stories about slavery and its impact, but I’m not certain I can recall any that delve deeper into its cost on survivors removed from their oppressors than Toni Morrison‘s Beloved. I say this without having read the novel because I found it to be true of Jonathan Demme‘s cinematic adaptation, one that’s been well documented as being extremely faithful to its source. Whereas most depictions of this post-Civil War era would focus on the cruelty and assistance provided by external forces upon the central character, Morrison seeks to portray the indelible mark left upon the victims that continued their torture without pause. She makes sure we don’t dismiss this blight on America’s history as one that could ever be “solved” without lasting effect.
More so than Demme, we should perhaps commend screenwriter Akosua Busia for keeping Morrison’s message intact. Beloved is her sole writing credit to-date—its complex and sprawling ghost story expertly culled from the novel’s pages onto the screen one that she has stated was hers and hers alone. Busia calls the co-writers that share the “screenplay by” frame with her (Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks) script doctors, a distinction to which the Writers Guild of America obviously disagreed. While this is a topic close to the hearts of those involved, however, the audience reaps the benefits of whoever is responsible. Morrison is ultimately the driving force behind it all anyway, the emotional impact and dramatic truths she wrote coming through despite any shortcomings the film might possess.
It begins with a scene of horror: a poltergeist wreaking havoc within Sethe’s (Oprah Winfrey) Ohio home. This obviously isn’t the first time nor will it be the last. But while Sethe can’t leave because of what this enraged spirit represents—a deceased daughter—her two young sons can. They hug their surviving sister goodbye and run off, never to be seen again. Eight years pass and everything looks the same save the quiet. Sethe is in the fields, her lone child left Denver (Kimberly Elise) inside the house, and a familiar face in Paul D (Danny Glover) walking up the driveway with a smile. He possesses an optimistic hope unlike any he’s had, but it still cannot mask how he’s also dragging a shared past behind him.
Paul D’s presence awakens the ghost with a bright red demonic light, this house still tainted with the rage of a violent death. Whether it’s the long-awaited reunion or this enveloping supernatural force, glimpses back to the day Sethe escaped the Sweethome plantation arrive with a staccato rhythm. We glean details, the full scope of what happened in the eighteen years since these two friends last saw each other hidden by the film’s desire to withhold until the greatest emotional impact can be earned. But even without specifics, the context is seared to our eyelids. It’s torture beyond your worst nightmares—the sort that will either stop you cold with insanity or propel you forward with desperation. For Sethe the latter achieves freedom, the former a new prison.
This self-imposed jail makes Beloved stand apart from other slavery films. It gives a stage to the PTSD inherent to what these men and women experienced once freed. It manifests the torture of memories and the delusions sparked by pain that create even more as a physical entity to fight. As Paul D lends stability to Sethe’s house to form new memories that can shield her from old wounds, the evil within must adapt. Throwing objects is no longer enough. Instilling fear in the town so that everyone looks upon Sethe and Denver with judgment isn’t enough. To let them be a family is to forget the ones who were lost and this spirit refuses to let such an indignity occur. Sethe’s guilt refuses to let her forget.
A stranger emerges with a child-like sensibility born from the darkness. Beloved (Thandie Newton) arrives as a chisel chipping away at the bonds formed, her presence a reminder of what no longer was. She provides Denver the sister she never met, Sethe the daughter she lost, and Paul D a temptation necessary to cast him out. She’s covered in bugs with a deeply hoarse voice and volatile temper to avoid so as not succumb to her malicious strength. She has one goal: make Sethe hers. She needs Sethe to realize who she is and rebuild the walls Paul D helped take down higher so removing them again won’t be so easy. By forcing her mother to acknowledge her role in her death, Beloved reclaims possession of her soul.
All the things that kept Sethe in invisible chains become more pronounced the moment she leaves her property on Paul D’s arm. The sneers return to the faces of neighbors—to us the product of seeing a haunted woman rather than the still shrouded truth. Eventually we do learn what happened to Sethe’s eldest daughter as well as the tenuous hold on sanity she has thanks to the nightmares of her past. We recognize that the line between life and death is very thin for her because both are better than the existence she endured. To her there is a Hell and it’s not what awaits us after we pass. It’s quite literally right across the river in Kentucky. It also resides in the recesses of her mind.
I never found the way Demme’s film holds back reveals confusing. On the contrary I found each instance of clarity expertly placed. My issues with what’s onscreen come from the pacing instead. It was the moments without revelations that felt overlong and redundant at times, the information gleaned already having been understood earlier. And some of these instances are quick vignettes barely there before fading to black, the disjointed quality that results stemming from too much information rather than too little. But while the whole could therefore use some condensing, its impact is no less powerful in its current form. For every scene you gloss over there are two you’ll never forget. The horrors depicted in the latter simultaneously resonating as genre machinations and dramatic devastation.
And the constant focal shift to Denver can seem ill advised—especially towards the end with Sethe becoming afterthought—it’s crucial to supplying a necessary comparison. Her mother is tortured because of experiences she thankfully never had. Denver’s hold-ups and fears are therefore different than Sethe’s despite being no less debilitating. She’s a woman born in a tarnished world striving to be better and thus her eyes are clearer in reading situations with intellectual problem solving rather than unadulterated passion. Sethe would be forever lost without her, a ghost like the one that’s haunted them for two decades. Denver was imbued with strength of heart by her mother—her grandmother (Beah Richards‘ Baby Suggs) soul. Sethe therefore unwittingly created her own destruction and salvation unaware of the victor.
In the end we’re given myriad examples of slavery’s aftermath. There’s the proud and joyous woman of God positioned to ensure the newly freed survive with faith (Baby Suggs); those who battled their demons and won to close the door on the past and carve a new future (Paul D); the benefactors of a bloody war and generations of suffering given promise and possibility (Denver); and the victims so tormented that they’ve picked up their own punishment where their tormentors left off (Sethe). Where some can leave tragedy behind, others remain haunted until their final breath. And as the truth lets outsiders evolve their understanding of Sethe’s crimes as not being hers alone, it also reminds her of her role. Forgiveness in oneself is the hardest to earn.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.