"Tell me your diamonds."
This is one of many memorable lines in "Beloved," the film adapted from Toni Morrison's book that opens in theaters on Friday. The title character, a strange, otherworldly girl, is asking her mother, played by Oprah Winfrey, to tell the story of a long-lost pair of shiny crystal earrings.
But when Winfrey - who has spent 10 years bringing Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen - recently met with the press in Chicago, she was not wearing crystal. She was wearing very real, very big diamonds that dangled voluptuously from her ears.
And it was impossible not to relish the fact that the woman playing a former slave, and herself a collector of slave memorabilia, is now the most powerful woman in the entertainment business, maybe even on the planet.
But make no mistake, she's still Oprah. Never mind that Life goes where she goes, that Time follows her around. Never mind that 33 million TV viewers consider her a big sister or mother or therapist or New Age healer. Never mind that she's worth an estimated $550 million, that her famously fit form currently graces the cover of Vogue, that her personal and cultural power seems to multiply exponentially every day.
Oprah can't play the diva, even when holding court with a table full of jaded entertainment reporters (who somehow get a little less jaded when she's in the room).
Still, even though she was her jocular and deprecatory self while being peppered with questions, she seemed somehow chastened, awed by what she has borne and borne witness to. "It's my baby," she answered when a reporter asked if she felt exorcised. "It's my birthing. It's just a C-section, and a little late."
Oprah Winfrey first read "Beloved" the way any busy woman would, in furtive spurts at the office, or on airplane trips here and there. But she soon realized she could not do Toni Morrison that way. "You just have to give her her 'propers' and sit on down and give her the space."
So in 1987, Winfrey scheduled a day for herself at her Chicago penthouse, and in one sitting read Morrison's searing story of Sethe, a former slave living as a free woman in Cincinnati in 1873, whose life is deeply haunted by a legacy of oppression and the guilt of having survived it.
When she had finished the book, Winfrey knew two things: "Beloved" was meant to be a movie, and she was meant to play Sethe.
"When I put that book down, I couldn't even articulate what it was I was feeling," Winfrey recalled in Chicago. But she could articulate what she wanted. She got Toni Morrison on the phone and asked if she could buy the rights. Morrison laughed. "What do you want with those?" she said with her famous hauteur. "How do you plan to make a film of this work?"
Winfrey assumed that Morrison was angling for creative control. "I said, 'Listen, you can write the screenplay.' And she said, 'Never. Never. I don't want these people in my house again.'"
Morrison's reluctance was understandable. Her novel is a mournful one, full of ghosts and terror, violence and misery. Sethe herself is a reserved, rather forbidding character inured to pain. Sethe's daughter Denver (played in the movie by Kimberly Elise) - the only one of four children who still lives with Sethe in the family's house at 124 Bluestone Road - is an isolated, unhappy child whose only playmate is a mischievously active poltergeist.
Sethe is convinced that the ghost is the spirit of the daughter she murdered to save her from slavery. When that ghost, named Beloved (Thandie Newton), comes to life, the house and its inhabitants succumb to a deep, if temporary, madness. Even Paul D. (Danny Glover), who has been searching for Sethe since they left the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky 18 years earlier, cannot overpower Beloved's primal force.
It's an enormously difficult story, one that Morrison relates with an exquisitely intricate structure and poetic language. In other // words, "Beloved" is the most un-adaptable of books. And director after director turned Winfrey down while she shopped the "Beloved" script around Hollywood.
"I had a black director tell me he was already working on another project, and he didn't want this to be his first major film because he didn't want to be pigeonholed as doing a black film," Winfrey recalled. "I had Jane Campion ['The Piano'] say to me she didn't know enough about the black experience, it would take too long for her to figure it out. Jodie Foster, who had done Toni Morrison as part of her thesis [at Yale University] didn't feel it could be a movie, just felt it was literary material." After Jodie said no, I thought maybe there's something to it, everybody saying it can't be a movie," Winfrey said. "And Kate Forte, who runs my film company, said, 'No, the problem is you're looking for a woman, and you're looking for a black person and you're looking for foreign people - because [at one point] we thought maybe we need a foreign sensitivity and not just a female sensitivity - and she said, 'We should just go with the person who shares your vision.' "
Jonathan Demme, who had not directed a film since the 1993 movie "Philadelphia," was sent the "Beloved" script by Winfrey's Harpo Films, and read it during his Christmas vacation in Florida in 1996. He called Winfrey, and the two met in Chicago for dinner.
"I'd had lots of directors who had said to me over the years, 'Trust me,' " she said. "And I'd always leave the room and say, 'Should we trust them?' 'Should we' means 'No.' If you have to ask yourself the question, it means No. [Jonathan] said what I said before I'd say it. So by the time we finished dinner it was like, he's the one. And when he said 'Trust me,' I said 'I do.'"
What's more, Demme didn't object to Winfrey's desire to play Sethe, although he did question whether audiences would accept the ubiquitous television presence as such a wildly different character.
"I was so inspired by her, that I felt very strongly that if this little fear of mine that we won't be able to separate Oprah Winfrey, Contemporary Person, from Sethe, I still want to be there," Demme recalled of the evening. "I still want to take this trip, come hell or high water."
Among the most moving images in "Beloved" are of Paul D. and Sethe sharing tender, sensual love, their scars from slavery clearly visible, and the final scene where Denver - who has never experienced life as a slave - is shoved aside by a white man on a sidewalk. Her face first reflects disbelief, then a creeping anger.
These two images, of people expressing their new-found freedom and almost simultaneously discovering its limits, reveal the unique historical context of the film. To understand the full weight of "Beloved," one must first understand why it takes place when it does.
"Reconstruction is a revolutionary moment," said Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland and the author of "Remembering Slavery," a book-tape project based on oral histories taken with former slaves during the 1930s.
"It's a moment when suddenly things that seemed impossible looked like they were possible. And of course the moment fails, in large measure as a result of violence and extra-legal action. All the windows aren't closed at once, but within a short period of time, things that looked like they were being changed in a dramatic way weren't changed."
Until now, probably the best-known movie to take place during Reconstruction is D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation." According to historian Taylor Branch, Griffith's enormously influential film and its racist version of history defined the norm in Hollywood and the culture at large for generations.
Griffith's images of rapacious, drunken and violent blacks juxtaposed with whites - especially white women - as helpless victims "buried Reconstruction politically," Branch said, "let alone stories like 'Beloved.' ...
"It's all been caricature - and conscience-salving, inside-out caricature," Branch said of most Reconstruction narratives. "There has been no one with the emotional balance to say, 'What was it like for the first generation after slavery? What did they take with them into Reconstruction? How many ghosts?' "
How many, indeed. If reading "Beloved" is a haunting experience, seeing "Beloved" is a gut-wrenching shock. Demme has trimmed many of the book's interwoven narratives, focusing on the story's supernatural elements and Beloved's troubling, ultimately destructive presence at 124 Bluestone Road.
The film opens with the family dog being hurled across the room by an invisible force, its eye torn from its socket. And the horror continues virtually unabated for two hours and 45 minutes. At times, "Beloved" looks less than a meditation on the past than a Stephen King horror thriller.
Demme set out to make a terrifying ghost story, and he did.
"I love the whole idea of characters like Sethe and Paul D. being haunted by slavery, because I think African-Americans are haunted by slavery," he said. "I think [white people] are haunted by slavery, too, but we don't admit it, or we don't have the stimulation to realize it."
As Demme sees it, and as "Beloved" makes clear, we are all living at 124 Bluestone Road.
Especially whites, who, if they are not descendants of slave owners, are at least descendants of people who profited from the slavery system. And as long as they relegate slavery to Black History Month, rather than owning, grieving and healing themselves, they will continue to be haunted by ghosts they cannot name.
"I didn't make 'Beloved' for a black audience," Demme said. "I made it for a white audience, because I want to share my feelings about this story with white people. They need to get in touch with what this movie offers more than black Americans do. I don't think this is going to teach anything new to black Americans."
It's significant that "Beloved" is being released in the midst of a "national dialogue" about race that seems mired in mistrust, defensiveness and guilt. "Slavery has got to be dealt with if you're going to deal with race," said Berlin. "And somewhere between the end of slavery and yesterday we've had lots of chances. Reconstruction, the New Deal, the civil rights revolution. Not that things aren't better, but it's not quite done."
Oprah and Sethe
Oprah has got to be tired.
A week after the Chicago press trip, she has embarked on a seven-city tour on behalf of "Beloved." Washington, where she is meeting reporters for more intimate half-hour sessions, is her third stop. "Same room, different curtains!" she trills, entering yet one more perfectly appointed Four Seasons suite.
She has eschewed the diamond earrings for a quieter pair of studs, and has exchanged Issey Miyake for a pair of comfy olive-green trousers and a maroon blouse of luxurious weave.
"You can't get too tired," she says when sympathy is offered. "For me, doing ["Beloved"] was a gift, so every time anybody sees it, it's a gift to me. I feel deep passion for it, I feel like it was one of the reasons I was meant to be here, to create it, so you can't get too tired doing [publicity.]"
Winfrey seems reinvigorated by having wrestled "Beloved" to the screen. "I think everybody lives to get to this point," she says. "People think they live to get to the point to have as many shoes as I do. But really, you live to get to the point where you know your life is meaningful and on purpose."
Back in Chicago, she had told reporters about her most difficult day of filming "Beloved." She was trying to deliver Sethe's description of her 28 days of freedom, the 28 days before she was forced by her own terror to murder her daughter. At one point, Sethe stoically recalls "How it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day."
"Did four takes, fell apart every time," recalled Winfrey. She added that she had never truly understood the concept of free will - and the deep crisis that ensues when it is lost - until she found herself blindfolded under a tree in rural Maryland in 1997.
To prepare for her role, Winfrey asked Arthur Cohen, who re-enacts slave escapes along the route of the Underground Railroad, to stage a re-enactment just for her.
Cohen blindfolded Winfrey and drove her to an isolated spot in Maryland (much of "Beloved" was filmed in Cecil County), telling her that when the blindfold came off the year would be 1861. He told her she was a free woman living in Baltimore and had just been stolen by a group of white men. "It's up to you to believe what they tell you is true about yourself, or leave it," Cohen told her. "Just as every slave had to do."
"You're living in a world that says you don't have a right to exist. You don't have a right to exist," Winfrey said, disbelief tingeing her voice. "I'm a student of my own history, I believe that the ancestors are a bridge to my life, Sojourner Truth is my No. 1 role model and mentor, but I hadn't gone there," she said.
Everything "clicked" for her that day in Maryland.
"For years I've found Black History Month to be not satisfying, because I think we're measuring the wrong things," she said. "We're talking about who built, who created, who invented, when it's really about who had the courage to stand and define themselves by their own spirit and not by what the world said they were. What it took to do that is what should be celebrated, is what should be revered and honored and passed on.
"And that is what we have forgotten," she continued. "I swear to you, that if I could get the people to remember! If we could remember who we were, it would be over. You couldn't be stopped. Nobody could penetrate you, you'd have no fear because you'd know you come from a people who were so courageous."
It's easy to see why the concept of free will would be so powerful for Winfrey, who is such a walking, talking embodiment of self-determination. Growing up poor, traveling between her mother's home in Milwaukee, Wis., and her grandmother's farm in rural Kosciusko, Miss., Winfrey, who is 44, always possessed a sense of her own future.
"I remember seeing my grandmother through the back porch, I have this very vivid memory of watching her though the back screen door, boiling a pot of clothes, saying, 'Watch me now, watch me. 'Cause one day you're going to have to do that.' And me thinking, 'No I'm not. My life will be very different.' And I couldn't have been more than 5."
The rest of the story, at least its salient points, we know: A gifted orator even as a young girl, Winfrey began her broadcasting career at 19, when she became the first African-American woman to anchor the news in Nashville, Tenn. She moved to Baltimore in 1976 to anchor the 6 o'clock news at WJZ-TV, then was co-host of the talk show "People Are Talking" for seven years before moving to Chicago as host of a morning talk show called "A.M. Chicago." Within a year, the show was rechristened "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and a cultural juggernaut set its course.
"The difference between my life and Sethe's is that I was born free," she says simply. "Not only free, I was born in 1954, in Mississippi, the most racist state on Earth at the time. But the difference between '54 and '53 was Brown vs. Board of Education," she says, referring to the Supreme Court decision on desegregation of schools.
"It was a lucky year, '54. What people felt was possible for me as a colored child was completely different than everybody born the year before. ... I, Oprah Winfrey, was born with hope. Sethe was not."
Changing your life
It's no coincidence that the first feature film that Oprah Winfrey has produced is a call to memory. "Beloved" asks its audience to remember a forgotten collective past. If "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is about anything, it is about remembering - your past, your spirit, your worth - while everything conspires to make you forget.
After 13 seasons, even though she and her staff were burned out, Winfrey decided over the summer to sign a contract for four more years.
"It was not long after I'd done the taking-of-the-milk scene that I started to think heavily about it," Winfrey says, referring to a scene in the film where Sethe recounts how her former master and his sons forcibly took her breast milk.
"That scene made me weary, you know. There's a weariness about her in the telling of that story. And I felt that weariness inside my bones. And when I got up one night to find the Aleve bottle, I realized that I'd never felt that before. And even taking two Aleve wasn't going to help. Just something came over me and I said, I can't quit.
Because I've been tired and I know what tired is, but imagine living with this inside you in your bones, in your spirit, carrying that every day. How do you break through that wall and keep going? I just thought, I know everybody's tired, but I've got to figure out a way to rejuvenate them and understand that there's a deeper meaning to it."
When Winfrey launched the current season of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in September, she christened it "Change Your Life TV." Jerry Springer, with his cavalcade of perversities and abominations, might have rattled Winfrey's hold on the top ratings spot last season, but she has responded with a radically counter-intuitive thing: Rather than meeting him in the muck of dysfunction, she has elected to take the high road, even raising it a few notches.
"The Oprah Winfrey Show" defiantly focuses on self-awareness, transformation and spiritual values. Rather than revel in their pain, Winfrey urges her viewers to look squarely at their own pasts, make their peace and move on.
Much as Sethe and Denver do in "Beloved."
"I don't see much of a difference between the women on my show who are denying their past, and don't realize the connection to what happened when they were 7 and 6 and 5 and 3 and 10 to what's going on in their lives, to an entire collective body of people who choose to not remember, who choose to dismiss [slavery,] and then say that doesn't matter, that it doesn't have anything to do with what's going on today," Winfrey says.
Is America ready to heal? "We don't know," says Winfrey. "I get asked that question a lot and I say [that] some people are - many people are, and probably equally as many are not. ...
"I see this movie as a stimulation, as an opportunity to pay attention and get stimulated, be moved and be opened up," she continues. "And I see my work every day as that now. Some people are willing and some are not. And just because they're not willing doesn't mean that it was the wrong thing to do."
Oprah: The Baltimore days
Oprah Winfrey was 22 when she moved to Baltimore to anchor the 6 o'clock news on WJZ-TV. She remembers her seven years here with a mix of fondness and ambivalence:
"Maya [Angelou] has a book [whose title is taken from] a saying: 'Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now.' I wouldn't take nothing for it. But I always knew I wasn't going to stay. Just like I always knew in Mississippi I wasn't going to stay.
"It was a growing time for me. For three years I only knew two streets. I knew Charles Street going up and Saratoga going down. And whenever I'd get lost, I'd stop and get out of my car, look for Television Hill and head that way, whichever way it was.
"First I lived in Columbia, and that was too long of a commute, and I moved to Cross Keys. And all I did was work. Because I was the closest to Television Hill. I could get there in 3 1/2 minutes from Falls Road, so if there was a fire, they'd call me. If there was an accident, they'd call me. If there was a plane crash, they'd call me.
"But I also was 22 when I was there, so those were the days of bad relationships and sitting by the phone and waiting, and being lied to and thinking that was OK. I bought that book, 'Why Do I Think I'm Nothing Without a Man.' So I feel like I became a woman there.
"When I finally left, I remember going up to the general manager at the time and saying I wanted to move on to Chicago. He first said, 'Oh great, great, great.' Called me back into his office in a half an hour and said, 'You can't go.' Because he'd called the Westinghouse people, who said I couldn't go.
"They offered me everything. I've never said this before. They offered me an opportunity to betray Richard Sher, which I wouldn't do. They said, 'Well, what is the problem?' I said, 'I want to host my own show.' And they said, 'Well, you can do that, we'll get rid of him.' And I said, 'No, I won't do that.' They offered me my own apartment - 'We'll pay for it!' My own car - 'We'll get you that! You want your own show, we'll get rid of him!'
"Then they started telling me how I was going to fail. I remember [the general manager's] exact words were, 'There are land mines in Chicago. There are land mines, and you'll never be able to survive, and you're going to be up against Donahue, and you'll never make it and you're black' - the whole thing. I said, 'OK, I may fail, but at least I would have grown.' So I made the choice to grow.
"I weighed then probably what I weigh now, which at the time was like, 'Oh my God, you're overweight, you'll never get the job.' So I went thinking, 'Well, everybody thinks I'm going to fail.' The only person who knew that I wouldn't was my friend Gayle in Hartford. She said, 'Who cares about Donahue? You can beat him.' When I first arrived in Chicago, the general manager there said to me, 'We know you can't beat him, so just be yourself.'
"I really have felt, since before the days I left Baltimore even, that I was destined to do really good things. I've always kind of felt that about myself, [without] knowing the direction that that would take. Now, after doing 'Beloved,' I deeply feel a connection to my history and the people who have made this moment possible for me, and really do feel the need to carry that on in a more intentional way, and not just 'Ooh, I'm so glad to be on TV.' "
Pub Date: 10/11/98