“Who’s the hottest picture tonight?”
“Oprah. Oprah. I gave it to you the first time. Oprah. She’s the shot.”
—Conversation with the paparazzi at the world premiere of Beloved
The Ziegfeld marquee is advertising What Dreams May Come with the tag line “After Life There’s More.” The actual movie being shown inside is Beloved, tonight having its world premiere and proving definitively that you don’t really need Hollywood’s rosy death effects to achieve apotheosis.
It took 10 years to bring Toni Morrison’s novel about slavery to the screen and—whatever critics say about the monument director Jonathan Demme erected to the book— there’s no avoiding the mammoth construction at the movie’s center. There is, of course, Beloved, the complex tale of Sethe, a slave who chooses infanticide over bondage. But mostly there is Oprah, media titan, the metanarrative threatening to overwhelm Sethe’s tale.
“They had to take her home. She was overcome.”
—Associate of Maya Angelou’s, after two friends helped the poet, staggering and weeping, to her limousine
“I have always had faith that my life will be fine and there is a bigger picture in store for me that I can’t even imagine for myself,” Winfrey declares in an essay written for Journey to Beloved, a lush vanity volume produced by Disney’s Hyperion Press to accompany the film. “I have since come to know that God can dream a bigger dream for you (for me) than you can dream for yourself, and that the whole role for your life on Earth is to attach yourself to that divine force and let yourself be released into it.”
“It was all over the map in a really good way.”
For “divine force” read market, a sphere in which Oprah is so fully realized that she has apparently taken over from the big miracle worker upstairs. Consider that after more than a decade her talk show still dominates its time slot, her personal fortune earns her perennial status among the Forbes 400, her book club mentions can make writers rich. Consider that this slave descendant now owns the plantation, that she’s an Oscar sure shot and that—where fashion publishing once treated black women as pariahs—a slimmed down Oprah commands the September cover of Vogue.
“It was emotionally brutal. I was speechless. I couldn’t even breathe.”
The film Winfrey envisioned for the 1988 Pulitzer prize–winning novel Morrison herself deemed impossible to produce: “How can you be serious?” she asked when first contacted by Winfrey. “How could this ever be a movie?” How could the truth that slavery is central to all American stories, as Morrison has often said, be made cinematic? And could it be done in a way that didn’t reduce the complex themes of the novel to artifacts of antebellum pastiche?
To the first question there was only one answer: When Hollywood passed on budgeting the movie, Oprah bought the rights out of pocket and green-lighted the project with herself in the lead. Eventually, she used her own money to buy an A-list director and some top-drawer talent from CAA. The problem of getting audiences to unremember all they knew about Oprah fell to Jonathan Demme, who made the star deglamorize (or, as J. Hoberman points out in his review, reglamorize) herself, to appear more “real.”
“I didn’t expect to be so moved. It’s very dense and surreal and a little chaotic, but you end up sort of emotionally trashed by the conclusion.”
“What I love about the story of Beloved,” writes Winfrey, “is that it allows you to feel what slavery was like.” To amplify this creepy feeling, Winfrey researched her role by participating in a full-dress reenactment of the Underground Railroad. “In costume,” reads an explanatory note in Journey to Beloved, “with a new identity, she literally escapes from a plantation; and endures running and hiding to avoid capture. It was grueling, painful, and authentic.”
What new identity? Where could she possibly have gone? Does Winfrey really think it necessary to “feel the pain” of whippings and beatings before we can comprehend slavery’s wreckage and transcendence? What, in this context, can “authentic” truly mean?
“Now,” Winfrey writes, “I have a voice that can be heard around the world. I must find a way to say what needs to be heard. May the Ancestors and all the power that is God abide with me.” If Beloved, the movie, fails in the end to deliver us to a promised land of enlightenment, beloved Oprah may carry us there on her back. “I awakened early, and did my daily prayer to the Ancestors,” reads a solemn diary entry in her book, which is replete with automatic gut-wrenchings and Ken Regan glamour shots of Oprah/Sethe’s whip-scarred back. “Then I ran to the gym.”