In honor of Halloween, I wanted to blog about one of the best horror films ever made: Beloved (1998), a labor of love that brought together three of the greatest black female minds of three generations: Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton.
It all started in the 1980s when the World’s biggest brained black, and biggest brained woman, Oprah Winfrey relaxed one afternoon by reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a book so narratively complex it’s been deemed too difficult for university undergrads and is typically only read at the PhD level.
And yet the richest African American of all time, finished it in a single sitting, and understood it on such a deep level that she started weeping and immediately decided to phone Morrison. Her large brain size not only gave her the cognitive brain mass to understand it, but the emotional brain mass to FEEL it on a deep level.
She felt compelled to reach out to the author but Oprah didn’t know her and her number wasn’t in the phone book. But the big brained star adapted by phoning the fire department in Morrison’s town and they gave Oprah Morrison’s home phone number.
When Morrison answered the phone, a sobbing Oprah was speechless:
“What is this? What is THIS Beloved? What is this?,” she stammered.
When Oprah finally composed herself, she said “do people tell you they have to go over the words over and over?”
“That my Dear, is called reading,” replied the haughty Morrison.
“I must make this a movie,” explained Oprah.
“How are you going to turn this into a movie,” laughed Morrison.
“I don’t know, I’ll find away. You could help”
“No, I don’t do screenplay. That’s not what I do.”
When it came time to buy the movie rights for the book, Oprah told her agent to give Morrison however much money she wanted.
“That’s not how it works,” explained the agent.
“That’s how this will work,” explained Oprah. Despite emerging as the World’s ONLY black billionaire in 2004 (excluding a Blarab hybrid in Saudi Arabia and a Canadian Blasian hybrid), Oprah has never considered herself a business woman and to Oprah, purchasing the rights to a book as profound as Beloved was a spiritual transaction, not a business one.
Once Oprah had the rights to Beloved, finding a director who would bring it to the screen proved incredibly difficult. One of the first people she reached out to was Jodi Foster who had famously written her Yale thesis on Beloved, but Foster was uninterested, claiming Beloved was far too literary a novel to ever be a movie.
When Oprah finally did find a director willing to make it, he wanted Oprah to audition for the lead role.
“You’re going to decide whether I get to be in my own move,” laughed Oprah. “Okay, bye-bye”
After ten long years of searching, director Jonathan Demme (famous for Silence of the Lambs) agreed to take on the project and Oprah used her status as the World’s most influential woman to get a major studio to invest $80 million into such a non-commercial art-film (a colossal amount of money, especially in the 1990s).
Inspired by a true story, the film stared Oprah as Sethe, an escaped slave who decides to slit the throat of her own baby rather than allow it to grow up in slavery. Many years later, the dead baby named Beloved, comes back from the dead (physically now an adult, but mentally still a baby) to live with Sethe.
The role of Beloved is brilliantly played by Thandie Newton, who like Oprah and Toni Morrison, is one of the most intelligent black women of her generation. Born to an African mother and White British father, Newton aced her A level exams and attended Cambridge university. She was initially skeptical that Oprah, who had little acting experience, could handle a character as complex as Sethe.
“I was stunned,” gushed Newton when she finally met Oprah. “She’s a very strong technical actress and it’s because she’s so smart. She’s acute. She’s got a mind like a razor blade.”
I loved this film’s slow pace, and cozy haunting atmosphere. I loved the fact that it was set in the 19th century, when people travelled by horse or by canoe on placid lakes colored by the reflection of the changing autumn leaves. I dream of such a simple beautiful life:
And I loved the simple mindedness of the characters, which really rang true given what the Flynn effect tells us about 19th century IQ scores, especially 19th century black IQ scores.
And yet when the film was released, it’s complex non-linear narrative structure and abstract themes proved too difficult for critics and movie goers. The film was considered a box-office flop, losing out to low-brow trash like The Bride of Chucky. And because everything Oprah touches is supposed turn to gold, the film’s failure was especially stinging.
“I was beyond hurt,” Oprah recalled. “I was STUNNED and hurt. And allowed it to devastate me for a long time. I was DEVESTATED by the reaction.”
Despite the film’s poor profits and mixed reviews, it remains one of the most beautiful and original horror films ever made.