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Her Object of Devotion

Bringing Toni Morrison's haunting 'Beloved' to the screen has been a 10-year crusade for Oprah Winfrey.

September 13, 1998|Charlotte Innes | Charlotte Innes is a writer based in Los Angeles

NEW YORK — Three days before shooting started on the film "Beloved," based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, Winfrey was sitting blindfolded under a tree in rural Maryland and, she says, "weeping hysterically."

Nothing to do with the film itself, this scene was part of a live reenactment, organized by Winfrey with the help of a historian, in which Winfrey was transported back to 1861 and treated like a slave. It was a way, she says, of helping her connect with her character, Sethe, a former slave who carries an unbearable burden of memories of beatings, rape and loss of family members, including her own baby daughter. Winfrey wanted to know: What does that really feel like?

"At first I'm going, 'Oh this is so silly,' " Winfrey recalls, "but then I really got into it. And it was life-transforming for me. They had this guy portraying a slave master, and he starts talking to me like, 'You're a nigger woman and you're going to do what I say.' And I would say, 'I think there's been a mistake.' And he said, 'You don't think nothin' because you belong to me.' And I came to a point where I understood what it was like. I knew."

Tears start pouring down her face at the memory. "It was so scary--scary, painful and hollow . . . like death with no salvation." After 24 hours of verbal degradation, she says, she understood her character's "iron-willed ability to beat back the past" and "what it took to maintain your humanity in a world that said you had none."

Winfrey, who bought the rights to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book shortly after it was published in 1988 and spent almost eight years searching for the right script and the right director, is not the only one involved with "Beloved" to connect so emotionally with the past in the making of this nearly three-hour film.

Director Jonathan Demme says he wept when he first read the script (by Richard LaGravenese) and felt a crusading urge to tell "a rich, epic story" about a period of American history that is rarely told. His goal, he says, was to humanize the experience of ex-slaves, to bring to the screen complex African American characters who are not pitiable, sentimental stick figures, but complicated people, their pain placed firmly in the context of daily life. Glover calls his part as Paul D, a former slave who had known Sethe years earlier at the Kentucky plantation Sweet Home, "probably the most important role of my life." Morrison, though she mourns some missing pieces of the book, nevertheless says she was "stunned" by the film's evocation of her work--which Winfrey in turn calls "an offering."

Perhaps not everyone would associate the No. 1 talk-show host with such a literary undertaking--though for the last two years she has devoted a segment of her show to books and authors, 19 altogether--but Winfrey says she is a longtime admirer of Morrison, and she has brought to bear all her clout as one of the most influential African American women in the world in publicizing Morrison's books.

As well as being the driving force to bring "Beloved" to the screen, Winfrey featured on her show "Song of Solomon" and Morrison's latest best-selling novel, "Paradise," for which she has also bought the film rights. She also televised a dinner at her Chicago home to which she invited Morrison and four female viewers to discuss Morrison's work. And she initiated and televised a seminar at Princeton (where Morrison is Robert F. Goheen professor of humanities) in which the writer led a discussion on "Paradise" among a mixed group of Winfrey viewers, friends and academics.

As a result, sales of Morrison's seven novels shot up 40% for her entire backlist for the first six months of 1998. "Beloved," which has been through 30 printings in hardback, will be re-released in special hard- and paperback editions in conjunction with the film.

'Overwhelmed, somewhat numb, devastated but hopeful," is how Winfrey describes her initial reaction to "Beloved," which she read from start to finish one Saturday in 1988.

"I felt what slavery was like instead of intellectually understanding it," she says in an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel here. "I felt the humanity of our people--that it added a breadth and depth and knowledge of the heart. What it did for me--and what we try to do in the film--is, it doesn't explain the humanity of black people in any way, it just assumes it." Nevertheless, she adds, although the book depicted "the black experience . . . it's also the absolute human experience. That's what I've understood for years--that we are all as human beings more alike than we are different. And I wanted other people to see that, to appreciate it, to feel what I had felt."

After finishing the book, Winfrey tracked down Morrison's home phone number in Grandview-on-Hudson, N.Y. (through the local fire department), and told her she wanted to make the book into a film.

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