'Beloved' -- another shot in the culture war

October 19, 1998|By James P. Pinkerton

OPRAH Winfrey calls "Beloved" the black equivalent of "Schindler's List." To be sure, every ethnic group has a right, and perhaps even a duty, to project its painful history onto the silver screen. If white southerners of generations past were entitled to "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind," then surely the black experience in the South can be told in film, too, from "Cabin in the Sky" to "Rosewood."

Once upon a time, Hollywood recreated history with regularity; wizened character actor George Arliss made a career in anachronistic costume, playing everyone from Benjamin Disraeli to Cardinal Richelieu to Baron Rothschild. But, today, studio-nomics cuts against routinized Hollywood historicism. So instead movie goers get "event" histories, from "Titanic" to "Saving Private Ryan." The blitz for "Beloved," which opened Friday, includes Oprah on a dozen magazine covers -- including, curiously enough, a dishy spread in Vogue promoting the three-hour movie.

Echoing Faulkner

The tagline of the film, "The past has a life of its own," is a southern Gothicism that echoes the grand master of that genre, William Faulkner, who famously observed, "The past is not over and done, it is not even past."

"Beloved" is based on the true story of a black woman who tried to kill her children rather than see them returned to slavery. And while the film, drawn from Toni Morrison's novel, strives toward what the historian Thomas Carlyle called "the inner fact of things," its magical-realist Anne Rice-ish dimension undercuts its moral and historical impact.

But the bigger problem "Beloved" will face is its emphasis on victimization. And, while every tragedy is worth telling, perhaps, if the tale is tragic and only that, its audience will be limited. Indeed, sometimes bleak sadness is crowded out by even bleaker sadness, leaving some genocides little noted, as in Armenia, Cambodia and, today, Rwanda.

Closer to home, the recent murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo., reminds us that new tragedies are always in the making. But, if one were searching for the saddest news of the day, it might be the fate of 54 aborted fetuses, dumped on the side of a California freeway last year. A week ago, each was buried in a tiny white casket; the 54 never-to-be-borns were given a funeral Mass celebrating, belatedly but belovedly, "the sacredness of life." But don't hold your breath for Hollywood to make movie.

If brutality is the norm in human history, then what's most dramatically compelling are chronicles of men and women who rise above the iniquity around them. Which explains why the 1989 movie "Glory," in which Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of a black soldier fighting for Union and Emancipation in the Civil War, has achieved such resonance.

Male/female conflict

Of course, one might conclude from the movie that Ms. Morrison's real target is not so much slavery as it is masculinity. The men in the film, black and white, are either irrelevant or irredeemably evil, so infamous that they would suck the milk out of a woman's breasts to deprive her children of sustenance.

As a group, women deserve their place in the cinematic sun, but the unmistakable message of "Beloved" is not the promise of harmony, but rather the persistence, even the permanence, of male-female inequality. And so "Beloved" may not be a work of historical memory at all, but rather yet another salvo in the culture war that rages today.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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