The American Civil War is not long over and slavery has been abolished as a result, but the former slaves are still suffering. One family suffering more than some belongs to Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), for her home is haunted by a poltergiest which today has forced her two sons to flee, not to be seen again, after the spirit picked up their pet dog and threw it around the room, knocking its eye out in the process. Sethe's youngest daughter Denver is dismayed to witness her siblings run out of the door with barely a goodbye, knowing she is now left with her troubled mother and the entity which she feels renders her an outcast. So it is ten years later she (Kimberly Elise) is still there, a recluse thanks to her experiences...
Adapting Toni Morrison's award-winning novel about the scabrous effects of American slavery was a tall order, and in spite of Oprah Winfrey believing she was the one to do it, producing the film and publicising it as much as she could, it had trouble drumming up much support. It was all very well settling down to read the book and immersing yourself in that brutal world, and you would likely feel improved for having completed it, but watching it unfold as a more conventional movie was a different proposition and as many parts could very well be classified as horror movie material the temptation to leave it well alone since it was more hysterical and garish than it was insightful and educational was overwhelming for most people.
So the film flopped, in spite of a top director like Jonathan Demme guiding it, leading to his star falling as well as far as his prestige went, and not only internationally, it never raised itself above a cult movie status in its homeland either. There was some novelty in seeing scenes of chat show queen Winfrey having the milk drained from her breasts by evildoers or pissing like a racehorse out of the blue, but it was also a shade embarrassing, no matter that the script was based on real events, though not the poltergeist part which operated as a metaphor of sorts for the spectre of racism bearing down on the characters. The spirit belongs to Sethe's youngest daughter who expired in very unfortunate circumstances which become clearer as the story wears on.
Most of the cast were African-American, though it took a Brit to bring to life the title role. Step forward Thandie Newton as Beloved, a mysterious young woman who we first see wading out of a river and covered in beetles as she snores loudly, and her performance only matches the weirdness of that introduction. You could call her brave for going as far as she did, and while this was such a serious film based on such a weighty tome you can't really laugh at exactly how eccentric she becomes, starting out speaking like E.T. the Extraterrestrial and ending up apparently doing some kind of impression of Frank Spencer from seventies sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Nevertheless, it's rare to see a star name behaving quite as off the wall as Newton did here, ranging from stuffing a chick into her mouth to "raping" Danny Glover.
Glover played Paul D., Sethe's love interest who brings about the events, as far as we can ascertain, that saw the polt become flesh in the form of Beloved, a point that could have been more ambiguous to ground this further in some reality but given the movie starts with Oprah manhandling a very obvious dog puppet as her crockery swirls around the room, restraint wasn't on anybody's mind. By adopting the tropes of the shocker flick you have to assume they were trying to bring home the true horror of slavery by making the audience as uncomfortable as possible, fair enough there was nothing cosy about the subject so we don't deserve to be mollycoddled through an account, but the trouble was those elements were so closely associated with a certain genre that Beloved was more like a prediction of the haunted house chillers that were soon to be big at the box office, mixed with an overbearing conscience determined to teach you a lesson in ethics. You had to admire its commitment, but also question how effective it was if you didn't know the source. And even if you did. Music by Rachel Portman.
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.