What becalmed "Beloved"? Launched with galas and cover stories and borderline-reverent reviews, the Oprah Winfrey epic that arrived wrapped in Oscar predictions has been anything but beloved at the box office.
In the five weeks since its Oct. 16 release, the $65 million picture, which stars Winfrey as a runaway slave whose nightmares continue well beyond the Civil War, earned a disappointing $22.5 million. Its failure, just 10 months after the fast fade of Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," another harrowing film about the slave experience, has prompted a rethinking of the market for prestigious, black-themed films.
"While I don't think there's a backlash against black films, I do think 'Beloved' is an example of how serious films about blacks don't make it. Not 'Rosewood.' Not 'Amistad.' Not 'Beloved,' " says George Mansour, a Boston consultant to exhibitors.
That, Mansour and other veteran analysts agree, could discourage major studios from financing future films on such subjects.
There are a variety of explanations for why the Jonathan Demme-directed film has underperformed. But the theory voiced most often comes from an examination of quality black-themed films that have succeeded with African-Americans.
"The box-office figures for 'Beloved' have nothing to do with whether African-American audiences will support serious black films," says Kenneth Lombard, president of Magic Johnson Theaters, which operates a national theater chain that targets middle-class African-Americans.
"They're a sophisticated audience, and they do support serious black-themed films like 'Eve's Bayou' and 'Soul Food.' "
The difference, says Lombard, is that, though they deal with family tragedy, those films offer black heroes and heroines who emerge positively, unlike the doomed protagonists of "Beloved" and "Amistad."
" 'Beloved' should not be a referendum on African-American cinema," cautions Warrington Hudlin, film producer ("House Party," "Boomerang") and president of the Black Filmmakers Foundation.
Why is it, Hudlin asks, "that when Hollywood thinks about black experience, it so often thinks in terms of misery and suffering?
"For the psychic needs of African-American audiences - which are no different from the needs of Americans across the board - if we're going to talk about that period [of slavery], we don't need 'Beloved' or 'Amistad,' we need 'Spartacus,'" says Hudlin, referring to the 1960 classic about a slave revolt in the Roman Empire.
Robert L. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET), puts it more bluntly: "In 'Beloved,' there are victims; in 'Spartacus' there are heroes."
"To draw the lesson from 'Beloved' that black films don't work is just like saying the failure of 'Heaven's Gate' means that Westerns don't work," says Johnson. "If the people who spent $65 million on 'Beloved' had spent that money on a movie about Toussaint-Louverture," the Haitian general and liberator, "they'd have had a 'Braveheart' on their hands."
It's easy to Monday-morning quarterback, but Johnson isn't alone in wondering why "Beloved" and "Amistad" got major financing, while more positive black-themed films never get the green light.
"It's not coincidental that the stories of slave heroes aren't made and the stories of slave victims are," Hudlin suggests, "Because if they satisfy the psychic needs of black Americans, these stories might scare white Americans."
He'd love to see the story of Nat Turner, the Spartacus of American slavery, made into a movie. But Hudlin thinks that Turner, who led a 1831 uprising that left 55 white people dead, is too hot a subject for the studios to handle.
For Mansour, who "very much liked 'Beloved,' " the film had more going against it than the lack of a triumphant protagonist. And, in truth, many of those respectful reviews were less than wholeheartedly enthusiastic. Entertainment Weekly, for example, gave "Beloved" a C+ grade.
"'Beloved' was confusing," says the consultant. "Its visual style was 'The Exorcist'-meets-'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' It was a horror movie and a melodrama and a history lesson. And it was too long," he says of the 174-minute film, which the Wall Street Journal called "interminable."
"Its length hurt it purely on a mathematical basis," counters Hudlin, who said he believes "Beloved" to be well-paced. Exhibitors can show it only three or four times daily, says the producer, while a 90-minute film can get as many as six showings. Its running time limited its box-office potential.
So did the fact that "Beloved" was adapted from Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning, dense, nonlinear literary novel, as opposed to a more mainstream pop novel like those of Terry McMillan or John Grisham. "It's the rare literary novel - 'The English Patient' and 'The Wings of the Dove' are recent examples that come to mind - that translates into a successful movie," Mansour says.