THE SHRILL, whistling sound followed by a noticeable ka-boom you heard as 1998 came to a close was the sound of Oprah Winfrey's movie "Beloved" bombing.
"Beloved" died at the box office -- earning only $22.5 million, nowhere near its cost of $65 million. The film was superior in several categories -- directing, acting, screenwriting -- but failed to impress even black audiences. Where could Winfrey have gone wrong?
In several areas. "Beloved" is a profound, allegorical, even spiritual tale of how one black woman coped with the horrors of slavery and its aftermath. Winfrey played Sethe, a slave who escaped a Kentucky plantation and settled in Cincinnati, where she killed her infant girl rather than see her taken into slavery.
Winfrey's first mistake was timing. America is not ready for a movie that is profound, allegorical and spiritual. This is the America where "The Jerry Springer Show" and professional "wrestling" are wildly popular. Does that sound like a society that can cope with the profound, the allegorical and the spiritual or one with a passion for silliness?
"Beloved" -- with its images of brutalized, shackled and bleeding slaves -- is, despite its brilliance, little more than another "suffering Negro" saga. Suffering Negro sagas have been done to death, starting with the "Roots" television miniseries in 1977. "Beloved" will not soon replace the "resisting African" saga in my heart. "Amistad" is a resisting African saga, as is Haile Gerima's "Sankofa." The best of them all is Gillo Pontecorvo's "Burn," a 1970 film starring Marlon Brando as a British agent who learns the hard way that it's best not to trifle with revolting slaves.
Resisting African sagas aren't guaranteed box-office winners either. "Amistad" didn't fare well at the theaters. Nor did "Burn." "Sankofa" packed folks in during a limited run. Its popularity was spread mainly by word of mouth.
The black films that have done well recently -- "Soul Food," "Set It Off" and "Waiting to Exhale," for example -- all had black women in leading roles. This would suggest that if black films are to be successful, they have to appeal to black women. But "Beloved" had black women in the leading roles.
So the lesson may be that filmmakers need to stay away from black films with historical themes. Black folks talk a good game about black history. Oh, we'll crow how we love Black History Month and even get offended when a television network airs Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" in February.
But when it comes to supporting films that depict events of historical importance to blacks not only in America, but in Africa and the Caribbean, African-Americans usually miss the show. I'd wager that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, black America's current whipping boy, has seen more films depicting black historical events than many of the folks who have called him an Uncle Tom.
Box-office figures don't lie. "Malcolm X" cost $35 million to make and made only $40 million. In Hollywood accounting -- in which a film has to make twice its cost to be in the black -- the film lost money. "Beloved" was a definite money-loser. "Amistad" should have made far more than the $42 million it grossed.
In a Nov. 29, 1998, Sun article by Carrie Rickey, Black Entertainment Television Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert Johnson said, "If the people who spent $65 million on 'Beloved' had spent that money on a movie about Toussaint L'Ouverture, they'd have had a 'Braveheart' on their hands."
Not if such a film's success depended on African-Americans. It's nice to think that the story of the Haitian slave who led his army alternately against British, Spanish and French armies and defeated them all would be a box-office hit. But that film wouldn't put enough blacks in the seats to make money even during Black History Month.
And the sad part is that black Americans aren't even demanding that a film about L'Ouverture -- or Jean Jacques Dessalines or Henri Christophe or any of the other heroes of the Haitian Revolution -- be made. We have no use for a film about the maroons of the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States who escaped slavery and set up their own independent communities. We haven't asked for the film about Bass Reeves, a deputy U.S. marshal who tracked down outlaws in Oklahoma in the late 19th century.
The story of Mohammed Ali ben Said is an extraordinary one. He was a slave in Africa and Turkey who eventually made his way to the United States. After teaching school in Detroit, he joined the 55th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War. You won't see a movie about him either.
Oprah Winfrey rolled the dice and gambled that black Americans would flock to see a movie about their history. She came up snake eyes. Let that be a lesson to her.
Pub Date: 1/17/99