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A Beloved Performance: Reading between the Lines

Angela Christie
p. 105-120


American author Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1988) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993) following the publication of Beloved in 1987. Based on a true story, the novel is laced with magical realism that brings shocking aspects of American slave history to light. Morrison’s unforgettable character “Beloved” was later explored through British actress Thandie Newton’s haunting interpretation in a controversial cinematic version directed by Jonathan Demme in 1998. This article suggests that in spite of criticism leveled at the film for exceeding the boundaries of Morrison’s text, Demme’s adaptation remains justified and hints that echoes of the deeply-entrenched attitudes that fostered the institution of slavery in the United States still linger nearly a century-and-a-half after abolition.

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Il y a une erreur de date dans l’article. Cela concerne l’année de la version filmée de 1998 (au lieu de « 1991 ») apparaissant à 2 endroits : dans la note de bas de page n˚ 1 et en dernière page dans la bibliographie.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Beloved, dir. Jonathan Demme, perf. Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, B (...)

1From a river emerges a female figure fully dressed in mourning clothes from black brimmed hat to high-top shoes without a single scuff. Wheezing heavily and moving with an awkward carriage, she reclines beneath a tree, her face surreal in its expressionlessness as exposed skin and clothing swarm with insects.1 Toni Morrison’s enigmatic character Beloved thus comes to life in a controversial film version of a powerful post-colonial text focused on what remains a highly sensitive subject in the United States : slavery.

2Fully aware of prevailing racist attitudes that linger in the United States today, Morrison published Beloved in 1987, an important American literary work providing a unique reflection on a dark slave history, later adapted as a screenplay that arrived in cinemas in 1998.2 After the literary success of Beloved for which Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction,3 she went on to win the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature for her “‘visionary force and poetic import, [that] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.’”4 She remarked in her Nobel Lecture that “[language] alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”5 Although many Americans today dismiss the subject of slavery as merely “some old history” that no one needs to discuss anymore, it is clear that a meditation about this institution upon which the nation was built remains relevant.

  • 6 Carl R. Weinburg, “Antebellum Slavery,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 2 A (...)
  • 7 “[Thirteenth] Amendment to the Constitution,” Library of Congress, 12 May 2011, 7 Dec. 2011 http:// (...)

3While slavery during the Colonial Period may be attributed to practices of the British Empire, its continuance from the American Revolution up until the end of the Civil War was clearly a different matter.6 Thirteen New World colonies would transform into the war-torn United States before all slaves would finally be granted freedom following the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.7 However, as seen in Leon Litwack’s How Free is Free ?, the practice of chattel slavery may have been officially terminated, but Jim Crow laws and lynching continued to haunt the antebellum South (Weinburg, par. 4).

  • 8 “Biography of John Hope Franklin,” Duke University Libraries, 11 Oct. 2011, 2 pp., 12 Dec. 2011 htt (...)

4A distinguished African American historian and former Professor of Legal History in the Duke University School of Law, John Hope Franklin8 insisted that “[w]e should never forget slavery. We should talk about it every morning and every day of the year to remind this country that there is an enormous gap between its practices and its professions” (Weinburg, par. 3). Among his lifetime achievements were many landmark studies, and he presided over the American Historical Association and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race. Franklin recalled that in 1995 around the time he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a white man appeared in a hotel lobby where Franklin stood, promptly handing the eighty year old his car keys and ordering him to pull the car around to the entrance. Franklin replied that he was also a hotel guest and had no idea where the man’s car was parked, anyway, adding with his characteristic sense of humor that “in any case, I’[m] retired” (Weinburg, par. 1). In these modern times—nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery—the man perceived Franklin as a black man who could only have been there to serve him as a hotel valet (Weinburg, par. 1).

5Morrison’s novel, however, was never intended to serve as a historical timeline to map slave history within the continental United States ; instead, the author addresses the impacts of slavery on the internal landscape.9 Best-selling author and psychologist Alice Miller articulates what could be applied to the inner turmoil of Morrison’s leading character and former slave Sethe :

In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom . . . We cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored inside our bodies and bringing that knowledge closer to our awareness. (qtd. in Metcalf 2)

6It is the disquieting psychological struggle to survive and surpass slavery that the silver screen version of Morrison’s compelling novel brings to awareness.

  • 10 The film earned $23 million in ticket sales in face of a $53 million budget. “He’s White, Male and (...)
  • 11 Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Vintage, 1987) v.
  • 12 The Ohio River is a historically accurate choice of setting that remains significant because many r (...)

7Perhaps this thorny subject addressed in the film version of Beloved simply proved too vexing for many American movie-goers, for it proved to be a box office failure.10 The scenes may not have been as confusing to viewers who had not read the novel as they were inconceivably—and irreconcilably—painful. At the very heart of the narrative is the premise that this unspeakable and unaddressed part of North American history full of horror and heartbreak where more than sixty million slaves were caught up in genocide11 had died badly. Beloved assumes the role of that slave history as she emerges from darkness where restless spirits move about (248-49), her incarnation from the depths of the Ohio River symbolizing both life and rebirth into a world where memories have kept her alive.12

8The internal battles waged to move beyond slave history and on to freedom are brought to light. According to Lynda Koolish in the African American Review (1995), Beloved moves between modern fictive autobiography and archetypal narrative (in this case, borrowed from a slave), which becomes :

  • 13 Lynda Koolish, “Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representations in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Postco (...)

[…] a subversion of the narrative because it focuses on the psychological disintegration and reintegration of individuals, and not on a collective or representative text. The characters in Beloved reflect the traditional use of the novel as a psychological vehicle, an exploration of the psyche of the individual. . . . The narrator does not transcribe the facts and incidents of his or her life in captivity, but rather translates, interprets, provides to the reader a richly textured psychological and experiential view of personal and historical events. The novel functions as the imaginative reconstitution of individual and collective history.13

9The cinematic version relies on special effects to convey the magical realism that Morrison skillfully employs to escort the narrative’s past into the present, also opening the film to surface criticisms that belie the depth of this American cinematic oeuvre d’art.

An Overwhelming Canvas

10Morrison explains that the narrative for Beloved is based on a true story. “In 1983, I lost my job—or left it,” she explains, concluding her work at a publishing house in order to write full-time (ix). She recalls that the surprise of her own sense of liberation caused her to reflect on what freedom really meant for women, and in particular for the black women who once had no liberties at all (ix). She reveals that “the canvas overwhelmed me” until her thoughts returned to a newspaper article she had discovered in The Black Book. The account was of runaway slave Margaret Garner’s arrest for the murder of one of her children, and the attempt to kill the rest rather than to let them return to the fate awaiting them at the hands of the plantation owner arriving to recover them (xi).

11Garner became a poster child for the battle waged by abolitionists determined to end the laws requiring that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Newspaper reporters were fascinated that even in the face of such a brutal act, Garner seemed sane and unrepentant, and Morrison was drawn by “the intellect, the ferocity, and the willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom” (xi). To approach the vast subject of slavery seemed a formidable task, Morrison asserts, but she decided “to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts” (xi).

12Thus, Garner materialized in the novel Beloved as the unforgettable character Sethe, a runaway slave who takes the life of her infant daughter by severing her throat with a handsaw, also attempting to kill her other three children rather than to allow their return to a life of slavery in Kentucky. This narrative focused upon Sethe and her internal struggle with what she perceives to be an ultimate act of love set against the backdrop of her own dehumanizing slave history would present notable challenges for a film adaptation.

Cacophony at 124 Bluestone Road

  • 14 Alan A. Stone, “Oprah’s Nightmare: Beloved Suffers from Its Own Artistic Pretentions,” Boston Revie (...)
  • 15 Actor Tom Hanks plays the breakthrough role of a gay man dying from AIDS in Philadelphia.

13Film director Jonathan Demme was no stranger to fame or controversy when approached by African-American celebrity mogul, actress, and financier Oprah Winfrey, who held a vision that a cinematic version could unfold as powerfully in theaters as the book had in the hands of its readers : as “an experience, not just entertainment.”14 Demme had already won an Oscar for Best Director for Silence of the Lambs in 1991, followed by direction of the controversial film Philadelphia15 in 1993 (“He’s White” 1). While Winfrey’s dream may have fallen short where box office figures were concerned, the collective efforts of Morrison, Demme, Winfrey (in leading role of Sethe), and actors Danny Glover (as Paul D), Kimberly Elise (as Denver), Beah Richards (as Baby Suggs), and Thandie Newton (as Beloved) nevertheless resulted in an American cinematic performance that successfully conveys the spirit of Morrison’s novel.

  • 16 Toni Morrison, and Nelly McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” Contemporary Literature 24.4 (Wi (...)

14In an interview, Morrison explained an undertone consistently present in her novels, a certain characteristic “quality of hunger and disturbance that never ends.”16 She compares her work and that of other Black authors to jazz music that “keeps you on the edge” because the listener is not afforded that final chord of classical music that “satisfies and closes” (Morrison and McKay 429). Demme’s screen version brings to life a surreal character named Beloved who becomes the cacophony disturbing the residents of 124 Bluestone Road. As the film unfolds, Beloved is portrayed as a psychological mirror for Sethe, her teenage daughter Denver, and Sethe’s lover Paul D. They will discover that Beloved is not at all what they had expected (Koolish 436) as they navigate the maze of barbaric acts and unheralded bravery branded into the slave history that had followed them to freedom.

15Morrison’s text is innately visual through her inclusion of a series of cinematic flashbacks where the past intrudes on the present. Yet, while Morrison’s pen was able to omnisciently zoom in and out of her characters’ minds, Demme’s camera was confined to third-person observation, calling for selective scene adaptations and shifting close-ups to accommodate visual art. From the initial graveyard scene where the camera maneuvers with the lightness of a ghost in search of the headstone reading “BELOVED,” to flashbacks of the violence that was Sweet Home slavery, to images of Baby Suggs’ rapturous forest sermons inviting freed slaves to “Love yore heart !” (Beloved, sec. 32), Demme manages to bring the complexity of Morrison’s characterization to life. Beloved becomes a riveting character symbolizing not only the infant who paid the ultimate price of slavery, but also a specter of the darkness in which slavery was allowed to flourish.

The Silver Screen

16At the opening of the film, the setting is 1865, the same year that slavery was abolished in the United States. In a white clapboard house situated at 124 Bluestone Road just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, ailing freed slave Baby Suggs lives with daughter-in-law Sethe and Sethe’s children that include teenage sons Howard and Buglar and ten-year-old daughter Denver. The novel reveals that nobody bothers to stop by this haunted house dominated by a poltergeist and strange goings-on (17) ; in the film version, passers-by noticeably stare in the direction of the house from the safe distance of a road that runs along the front fence (Beloved, sec. 2).

17 The house is characterized in the opening lines of the novel as “spiteful” and “[f]ull of a baby’s venom” (3), a venom that becomes an angry, pulsating red glow in Demme’s film version. The phantasmagoric red presence reveals itself as a crying infant that rocks the house, tilting the floor and sending furniture and the dog symbolically called “Here Boy” crashing into the walls. Here Boy is seen falling to the floor, his eye popped out of socket as he trembles with a seizure. The camera captures Sethe’s deliberate calm as she picks him up and laboriously replaces the bloody eye before taping his broken leg. She appears strangely tolerant of this breaker of dishes, mirrors, and dogs that frightens the children so severely that Howard and Buglar run off for good. Baby Suggs is preparing to die, taken to her bed covered by a colorful patchwork quilt that sharply contrasts the gray world surrounding her, an elderly black woman who had been a slave until her son Halle (husband of Sethe) purchased her freedom for the price of his labor on his only day off. Baby Suggs seems weary of life and the persistent baby ghost that everyone in the house seems to know (Beloved, sec. 1).

18The film setting then shifts to 1873, eight years after abolition, and Baby Suggs is no longer present in the house, having died shortly after the boys ran away. In the novel, Morrison elaborates on Baby Suggs’ slave history and her wagon ride to freedom at the age of sixty when slavery was still legal throughout the South. Accompanied for the last time by owner Mr. Garner who possesses her bill of sale marked paid, he coerces her into telling her new Scottish landlords what a good slave owner he has been (166, 172). In their presence, he asks her, “‘‘Did I let Halle buy you or not ?’”, to which she dutifully replies, “‘Yes, sir, you did,’” while thinking to herself, “But you got my boy and I’m all broke down. You be renting him out to pay for me way after I’m gone to Glory” (qtd. in Morrison, 172).

  • 17 King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

19While film editing choices did not allow inclusion of these rich details included in the novel and testifying to Baby Suggs’ life and her importance within the black community of former slaves that had congregated at the outskirts of Cincinnati, there are several beautifully-shot scenes where actress Beah Richards as “Baby Suggs, holy,” preaches to them in an isolated location simply known as “the Clearing.” With a profound compassion written across her deeply-creased face, she reminds the congregation in one of her famed woodland sermons that they possess voices that can laugh, sing, dance, and weep at will. She calls out to the families dressed in their Sunday best, “Here in this place, we are flesh that weeps. Love your flesh—love it hard. They do not love your flesh. They do not love your hand. They only use, tie, bind, chop off, and leave empty ! Love your hands ! Raise them up and kiss them !” (Beloved, sec. 22). Her joyous laughter resounds, her sermons resonating with the power of lyrical repetition noticeable in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”17 Demme employs a series of visual flashbacks where skewed camera angles shift above and around the Clearing, zooming in and out between close-up shots of Baby Suggs’ expressive face and long angles of the assembly of black men, women, and children that surround her (Beloved, sec. 22.), effectively portraying in the film her message of hope and healing that also forms a centerpiece in the novel.

20Still living at Baby Suggs’ place, Sethe is unexpectedly reunited with another former runaway slave from the Sweet Home property in Kentucky, a man named Paul D. The audience learns that eighteen years prior in Kentucky, they had been the chattel property of the Garners, and Paul D ruefully comments, “It sure wasn’t sweet, and it sure wasn’t home” (Beloved, sec. 3). Morrison portrays in the novel what slave life was like at Sweet Home, underscoring Garner’s hypocrisy by revealing him as a man who not only coerces his slaves into publicly praising him, but who also brags to other slave owners that he makes “[m]en every one” out of his “niggers” (12-13). Yet, in spite of his desire to avoid the cruel treatment administered by other slave owners, Garner remains incapable of questioning what wrong there might be in possessing a bill of sale for another human being. The film presents cinematic flashbacks of Sweet Home and the growing horrors that ensue after Garner’s death, for life takes a dramatic turn for the slave population there when the widowed Mrs. Garner then calls upon a ruthless man named Schoolteacher to manage her property.

21When Paul D initially arrives on Sethe’s porch after all those years since Sweet Home and the nightmares of fighting to survive recapture more than once before finally gaining his freedom, he articulates that his feet have never really settled down. When Sethe invites him inside with “I hope you’ll pardon my house,” he does not comprehend what she means until he reaches the doorway (Beloved, sec. 2). Once inside, he comes face-to-face with the still-present pulsating red glow, quickly backing out to the safety of the porch before exclaiming, “My god, Girl, what kinda evil you got in there ?” (Beloved, sec. 3). She convinces him to come on in, assuring him, “It ain’t evil. Just sad” (Beloved, sec. 3). But as Paul D enters the house, Demme presents flashing images of slavery : two black men’s bloody bodies lying on the ground, and then a shed door opening to reveal a black woman with a baby in her arms, images that disappear before the he can get a good look. Sethe explains that it is not the ghost of Baby Suggs as he suspected, but that of her own daughter who died young (Beloved, sec. 3).

22After the two old friends from Sweet Home decide to try to carve out a life together, the bottled-up past begins to seep out. Through the characters’ testimonies and flashbacks, Schoolteacher is revealed as someone who viewed the slaves scientifically through the microscope of dehumanization, dissecting their animal characteristics and documenting them. As in the novel, the film flashes images of Schoolteacher ; he hovers as his sons hold heavily pregnant Sethe down to steal her milk in the barn just as she was preparing to run. The camera shoots him from Sethe’s point of view as he looms tall above her, scribbling in a notebook ; the lens then lowers to reveal a shockingly hopeless struggle. She had sent her three young children ahead to freedom in a wagon when the youngest, a daughter, was still nursing, so her single thought had been to catch up with them in order to nourish the baby. But her return for husband Halle when he did not meet her as agreed suddenly turns a flight to freedom into a night of terror (Beloved, sec. 4).

23Following the brutality she had met at the hands of Schoolteachers’ sons on the floor of the barn, Sethe confides in bedridden Mrs. Garner, yet finds herself destined to again suffer at the command of Schoolteacher, who orders one of his boys to thrash her with a cowhide whip when he learns that she dared to tell. After digging a hole in the ground to protect the unborn property, the jeering boys are captured by a camera positioned before Sethe’s bleeding face writhing in agony as she is whipped so severely that the lash wounds appear in the shape of a thickly-branched chokecherry tree carved deeply into her back. While a reader might not hear the screams coming off the pages of the novel, they roar onscreen, leaving viewers breathless and stunned as they grapple with the unimaginable horrors portrayed in the film (Beloved, sec. 4).

24Morrison also offers a unique view of the male slave experience through the confessions of Paul D in the novel. He gradually shares with Sethe his own internal demons that include having a bit shoved in his mouth as he was strapped into a three-point harness to pull a buckboard. The novel explains that for most slaves, use of the bit resulted in a permanent smile (82-86, 268), but even without that detail, camera shots of a male slave with a bit in his mouth and a harness around his neck (Beloved, sec. 6) clearly convey in the film version the dehumanization that was slavery, as does Paul D’s account of the last time he saw Halle. Paul D explains to Sethe why her husband had never been able to return to his family, for she still held hope that he would finally show up one day ; Halle had been hiding in the barn loft when Schoolteacher’s boys took her milk, and watching the torture of his pregnant wife as she cried out his name had driven him insane (Beloved, sec. 6).

25Because slaves and their families were bought and sold like cattle, Paul D had immunized himself against the pain of loss, and he had a warning for Sethe in the film : “Your love is too thick” (Beloved, sec. 22). She had not, however, lost her capacity to love in spite of the pain it had caused, and she replies, “Thin love is no love at all” (Beloved, sec. 22). She would know, for the act of love that sent her to jail and nearly to the gallows was no “thin love,” and to portray that bloody act and the collective slave history that framed it, Morrison set up camp—as promised—with a ghost named Beloved. Played by actress Thandie Newton, Beloved appears in what some critics consider to be an over-the-top performance that serves as an unwarranted deviation from the novel.


26In a film review, Dr. Clenora Hudson-Weems of the University of Missouri-Columbia writes about Newton’s performance of Beloved, claiming that :

  • 18 Clenora Hudson-Weems, “Beloved: From Novel to Movie,” Western Journal of Black Studies 23.2 (1999): (...)

[i]n the movie . . . we find the title character trapped in her recovering developmental stages, thereby rendering her seemingly retarded, which seems to suggest that her condition is a result of her horrible death. A distracting distortion of the novel, Beloved’s speech in the film never develops beyond that of a very young babbling child, further erroneously assumed from Sethe’s cutting her throat with a handsaw.18

27However, while details about Newton’s performance may have proven distracting for some reviewers, they do not reduce the power of the performance and are even warranted by certain details presented in Morrison’s text.

28In the novel, Morrison allows Beloved to develop from a drooling enfant in a young woman’s body to someone with adult desires. But how mature is the desire she expresses ? In the novel version, after stumbling in on Sethe and Paul D in the act of making love and then watching turtles copulate, Beloved approaches the increasingly unnerved Paul D with the request “to touch me on the inside part and call my name” (Beloved, sec. 20). When he resists and reminds her that Sethe loves her as her own daughter, Beloved replies, “She don’t love me like I love her” (Beloved, sec. 20). As with much of the dialogue in the film, this exchange is nearly identical to that presented in the novel, so critics must not be as disturbed by the dialogue as by the awkward gait and infantile gestures that Newton assigns her role throughout the film.

29Newton’s character is wobbly-headed, a clear nod to that day in the shed when Sethe sliced her infant daughter’s throat with a handsaw rather than to allow her to be returned to the hell that was Sweet Home. Wide-eyed and often—although not always—expressionless, Newton’s Beloved has the unsteady walk of a toddler, although her balance improves as she matures throughout the progression of the film, evident when later on, she and Denver playfully run and chase after each other as any two girls might. Yet, no matter the pose or the scene, Newton maintains a degree of the wobbly-headed, drooling, mouth-stuffing habits of this infant ghost born into an adult’s body, a role strikingly difficult to perform. While some film critics might appreciate a more mature, normalized portrayal of Beloved, Demme’s adaptation through the talented performance of Newton never allows the audience to forget who—and what—the character is, requiring that Demme work outside the pale of characterizing a young woman who had enjoyed normal development. In fact, the novel demands it, for when Paul D asks Denver at the end if Beloved was “sure ‘nough your sister,” Denver responds, “At times,” then adds that “[a]t times I think she was—more” (314). The character of Beloved is “more” from her first words, having emerged from a darkness where, as revealed in the novel, “small rats do not wait for us to sleep” (248).

  • 19 John C. Tibbits, “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved,” Literature Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 74, EBSCO Host(...)

30There is also the disconcerting matter of Beloved’s voice when she first appears in human form. In the film as in the novel, after she arrives in front of the house, Paul D and Denver help her inside as Sethe makes a run for the outhouse that she never reaches, her incontinence at the first sight of Beloved calling her back to the birth of Denver in a boat on the slave side of the Ohio. When Paul D asks the stranger what her name is, she spells out the letters and then pronounces it : “B-E-L-O-V-E-D. Beloved” (Beloved, sec. 9). Her dark, raspy voice is unexpectedly reminiscent of Linda Blair’s haunting voice in The Exorcist, much criticized by reviewers. For example, in “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved,” reviewer John C. Tibbits writes that thanks to Newton’s rendition, “[t]he character of Beloved is no longer a meaningful metaphor in a poignant ghost story but a freak on display in a side show.”19 Yet, the novel calls for a voice that is decidedly strange, “so low and rough that each one looked at the other two. They heard the voice first—later the name” (62). Demme’s special effects for Beloved’s first words achieve precisely that, for the audience is startled by her other-worldly voice before comprehending what she said.

31It is also worth noting that one might well imagine that frightening voice recalling that “at night I cannot see the dead man on my face” when Beloved’s rambling thoughts in the novel reveal the limbo between heaven and hell where restless graveyard spirits await peace (248). Beloved is never fully human, and Demme always keeps that distinction clearly in focus through the film’s special audio and visual effects closely aligned with the spirit and intent of the novel. In spite of what may be argued by some film critics as an over-the-top performance, Newton’s portrayal of an infant ghost inhabiting the body of a grown woman is both defendable and brilliantly performed.

32Beloved’s presence in the novel and film versions allows the other characters to recognize that whatever truth exists about the past lies in each person’s interpretation (Koolish, 436), and that first and foremost, the individual holds the power to consciously face and then dismiss those ghosts. Paul D faces the demons of slavery that followed him from Sweet Home and the hardships that followed, deciding to quiet those old apparitions so that his feet can finally settle down alongside Sethe’s. Denver chooses to let go of her neediness for the sister she was denied, reaching out instead to the community that her grandmother Baby Suggs, holy, had embraced. As for Sethe, she discovers at long last that in order to make peace with the past, she must embrace self-love and forgiveness. In the film, when Paul D returns to check on bedridden, grieving Sethe after Beloved’s disappearance, declaring his intention to stay around, she says through her tears, “She leave me. She gone, again” (Beloved, sec. 32). When he tries to comfort her, she insists, “She my best thing” (Beloved, sec. 32). In a moment of deep awakening, Paul D reminds her, “You your best thing. You are” (Beloved, sec. 32), something a Sweet Home slave would never have been privileged to imagine.

33The disquieting appearance and disappearance of Beloved in the film aligns with that discordant last note prominent in Morrison’s work, keeping readers and viewers alike “on the edge” (Morrison and McKay 429). Beloved’s final whereabouts remain unknown, for she disappears when the community of black women arrive to save Sethe from the baby ghost that has overtaken her life and her spirit, and it is this uncertainty that perhaps provides the best reason of all to watch and appreciate this masterpiece film. As John Hope Franklin and Toni Morrison could rightly argue, it is important to recognize the restless spirit of slavery that may appear and reappear unannounced at any time and any place—including in a hotel lobby—even nearly 150 years after abolition. Beloved’s “This is where I am !”(Beloved, sec. 13) continues to echo in the United States.

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Film Cited

Beloved. Touchstone, 1991. Director: Jonathan Demme. Actors: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards. 164 min.

Works Cited

“Biography of John Hope Franklin.” Duke University Libraries. 11 Oct. 2011. 2 pp. 12 Dec. 2011

“Biography: Toni Morrison.” 1993. 13 Dec. 2011

Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2004.

“He’s White, Male and Made a Very Nasty Movie: Would You Trust Him with a Film about Women and Slavery?” Guardian 18 Feb. 1999: 4 pp. 12 Dec. 2011 18/features11.g22.

Hudson-Weems, Clenora. “Beloved: From Novel to Movie.” Western Journal of Black Studies 23.2 (1999): 203-4. EBSCO Host. ASU Libs., Arizona State U. 8 Dec. 2011

Koolish, Lynda. “Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representations in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Postcolonial Theory/Postcolonial Text.” African American Review 29.3 (Autumn, 1995): 421-38. JSTOR. ASU Libs., Arizona State U. 8 Dec. 2011

Metcalf, Stephen. “Why is Beloved Beloved?” Slate 18 May 2006: 2 pp. 16 Dec. 2011 05/why_is_beloved_beloved.html.

Morrison Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage, 1987.

Morrison, Toni, and Nelly McKay. “An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Contemporary Literature 24.4 (Winter, 1983): 413-29. JSTOR. ASU Libs., Arizona State U. 10 Dec. 2011

“Nobel Lecture: Toni Morrison.” 7 Dec. 1993. 5 pp. 13 Dec. 2011 morrison-lecture.html.

“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993: Toni Morrison.” 1993. 13 Dec. 2011 laureates/1993/.

“Release Dates for Beloved.” Internet Movie Database. 2011. 15 Dec. 2011 title/tt0120603/releaseinfo.

Stone, Alan A. “Oprah’s Nightmare: Beloved Suffers from Its Own Artistic Pretentions.” Boston Review : A Political and Literary Forum. Feb./Mar. 1999. 7 pp. 12 Dec. 2011

“[Thirteenth] Amendment to the Constitution.” Library of Congress. 12 May 2011. 7 Dec. 2011

Tibbits, John C. “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved.” Literature Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 74. EBSCO Host. ASU Libs., Arizona State U. 9 Dec. 2011

Weinburg, Carl R. “Antebellum Slavery.” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 2 Apr. 2009: 6 pars. Oxford Journals. ASU Libs., Arizona State U. 8 Dec. 2011

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1 Beloved, dir. Jonathan Demme, perf. Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards, Touchstone, 1991: sec. 8.

2 “Release Dates for Beloved,” Internet Movie Database, 2011, 15 Dec. 2011

3 Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for Beloved in 1998. “Biography: Toni Morrison,”, 1993, 13 Dec. 2011

4 “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993: Toni Morrison,”, 13 Dec. 2011

5 “Nobel Lecture: Toni Morrison,”, 7 Dec. 1993, 5 pp., 13 Dec. 2011 4.

6 Carl R. Weinburg, “Antebellum Slavery,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 2 Apr. 2009: 6 pars., Oxford Journals, ASU Libs., Arizona State U., 8 Dec. 2011, par. 3.

7 “[Thirteenth] Amendment to the Constitution,” Library of Congress, 12 May 2011, 7 Dec. 2011

8 “Biography of John Hope Franklin,” Duke University Libraries, 11 Oct. 2011, 2 pp., 12 Dec. 2011 1.

9 Stephen Metcalf, “Why is Beloved Beloved?” Slate 18 May 2006: 2 pp., 16 Dec. 2011 beloved_beloved.html 2.

10 The film earned $23 million in ticket sales in face of a $53 million budget. “He’s White, Male and Made a Very Nasty Movie: Would You Trust Him with a Film about Women and Slavery?” Guardian 18 Feb. 1999: 4 pp., 12 Dec. 2011 1.

11 Toni Morrison, Beloved (London: Vintage, 1987) v.

12 The Ohio River is a historically accurate choice of setting that remains significant because many runaway slaves first tasted freedom there, ferried across an invisible yet ever-present line drawn by Northern and Southern states “in the world’s largest slave republic.” Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2004) 2.

13 Lynda Koolish, “Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representations in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Postcolonial Theory/Postcolonial Text,” African American Review 29.3 (Autumn, 1995): 421-38, JSTOR, ASU Libs., Arizona State U, 8 Dec. 2011 421.

14 Alan A. Stone, “Oprah’s Nightmare: Beloved Suffers from Its Own Artistic Pretentions,” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, Feb./Mar. 1999, 7 pp., 12 Dec. 2011 1.

15 Actor Tom Hanks plays the breakthrough role of a gay man dying from AIDS in Philadelphia.

16 Toni Morrison, and Nelly McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” Contemporary Literature 24.4 (Winter, 1983): 413-29, JSTOR, ASU Libs., Arizona State U., 10 Dec. 2011

17 King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

18 Clenora Hudson-Weems, “Beloved: From Novel to Movie,” Western Journal of Black Studies 23.2 (1999): 203-4, EBSCO Host, ASU Libs., Arizona State U, 8 Dec. 2011

19 John C. Tibbits, “Oprah’s Belabored Beloved,” Literature Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 74, EBSCO Host, ASU Libs., Arizona State U, 9 Dec. 2011

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Angela Christie, « A Beloved Performance: Reading between the Lines », Babel, 24 | 2011, 105-120.

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Angela Christie, « A Beloved Performance: Reading between the Lines », Babel [En ligne], 24 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2012, consulté le 26 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.152

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Angela Christie

Université du Sud Toulon-Var
Laboratoire Babel (EA 2649)

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Babel. Littératures plurielles est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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