What was your reaction the first time you read Toni Morrison’s novel BELOVED?

I read the novel a year or two before the film was made (in 1998). Morrison is a very lyrical writer -- great power & imagery. She certainly deserves both her Nobel Prize & the Pulitzer Prize that this particular novel received. 

BELOVED is her magnum opus about the residue of slavery. Remember, it’s not set in slave times. It’s set after the Civil War, in the Reconstruction Era, & there is an awful lot of residue that still eddies & flows into the lives of African-Americans today that I think she was focusing on in this novel. This is my view point. I have not heard Toni Morrison say this. But I think she was trying to capture all the cacophony, the horrible residue. You know, when you hear a huge alarm, the echoing hurts your ears for many minutes afterwards. 

Do you think the film version of BELOVED captures the novel? When did you first see the film?

I saw it when it came out on video. And I only watched it because some of my most Afro-centric friends didn’t like it. One, in fact, walked out in the middle, & I was stunned when I heard that. I had not intended to rent it. I thought it was going to be incredibly depressing. Since I’d read the novel, I knew what it was about…

But when I finally saw it, I was amazed by its beauty. I’m not a filmmaker so I do not know the technical details, but as a layperson, the cinematography was just exquisite. The changing of the seasons -- I was very moved by that. And I loved the theme music; music plays such an integral part in every film. The soundtrack, it’s just hauntingly beautiful. So that surprised me. I was expecting the film to be dark & heavy, “rain cloudy dark.”

But there’s this abundance of sexuality that always permeates, over-permeates films about African-Americans. The stereotype used to be that you couldn’t trust black men because they were all sexual predators, & black women, we’re just all loose. That’s nonsense! It’s a stereotype, but I see it in so many films made by black filmmakers. The character Paul Dee (portrayed by Danny Glover), well, in both the novel & in the film, Sethe (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey) hasn’t seen him in 18 years, but he comes to her house, & they hop into bed. 

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sexuality. I’m not trying to pretend that we (meaning all human beings including African-Americans) aren’t sexual beings. But come on, there’s a lot more to it than the film allows. That depressed me. It began with that. Then there’s the whole idea of the family’s utter poverty. Sethe worked very hard but her house was a mess. It was clean, but it was falling down! 

Now here’s a paragraph from an article about Black Women during Reconstruction by African-American writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: 

“Mrs. Hill, a widow, an African-American woman, has rented, cultivated, & solely managed a farm of five acres for five years. She makes her garden, raises poultry, & cultivates enough corn & cotton to live comfortably, & keep a surplus in the bank. She saves something every year, & this is much, considering the low price of cotton & unfavorable conditions & growing seasons.” 

First of all, everyone Harper describes in her book was married. I’m offended by this fact in BELOVED. Why didn’t the characters (Sethe & Paul Dee) marry? It wasn’t “slavery times” anymore. They had obviously struck up a relationship. The idea that African-Americans don’t marry, that we have this base animalistic nature, that we just “couple,” that disturbs me. 

I would argue that a writer of Toni Morrison’s caliber could have taken another path, & not fallen prey to the same things I see all the time in the cinema. You see the African-American experience, & in my opinion, we’re either portrayed as victims or as fools. But most of us fall somewhere in the middle. No wonder the average White person in this country doesn’t think that there’s any such thing.

Members of my family have been attending college & getting degrees since the 1870s. That stuns people because they think we’re aberrations. We’re not. We owned businesses & we owned farms. We were married couples, parents, grandparents… There was warmth & love. Powerful novels could be written about that experience, but you don’t see many… That kind of warmth & married love, that’s almost alien to filmmakers. 

But the idea of married love & married couples, you don’ get much of that anywhere in the multiplex? 

No, I would take issue with that. I would still argue that it’s almost implied that we (“we” now meaning African-Americans) tend to have immediate sexual contact. I see a lot more romantic buildup in other films.

So the primary reaction that you had to BELOVED?

Yet another showing of the same… 

Joyce, you & I have talked previously about the representation of slavery as parallel to the representation of the Holocaust, & I have expressed to you, as a Jewish-American, my frustration with the fact that there are so many Holocaust movies. Still, I think there were a lot of people who maybe “knew intellectually” about the Holocaust but didn’t really “feel it in their guts” until they saw SCHINDLER’S LIST. So I guess I want to ask you bluntly: Don’t you think that most White people need to see BELOVED? Don’t you want to shove it in our faces & make us really see the horror of slavery?

No. Not slavery. Not anymore. I feel that we’ve been bombarded with images of slavery. ROOTS was wonderful in its time, & many of my friends, my White friends still will refer to that, & properly so. But enough already! We had ROOTS. We had THE COLOR PURPLE. We had AMISTAD. So I’m sick of that particular aspect of the African-American experience being “shoved in peoples’ faces.” It’s one part. It’s an important part. We still suffer in certain ways today. 

But there are other battles. There was an article in a major Chicago newspaper about four months ago. One religious group (I will not state the particular denomination), they’ve started a program to encourage African-Americans to marry because we supposedly marry at such low rates. That’s nonsense! I’m livid! My parents were happily married for 50 years. I got married. Most people I know got married. But the image we have from the movies is that African-Americans are either victims (portrayed in many of the films about slavery) or we’re buffoons. I’m tired of slavery being the only serious reflection on our lives.

Ralph Ellison wrote INVISIBLE MAN decades ago, but most African-Americans are still invisible in films. If BELOVED had been one of a kind, Jan, then I would say: Bravo! It was very well-acted, beautiful cinematography, music, but, in the end, once again: victimization & constant sexuality... 

Let’s talk about the acting. I thought both young women, the women who played Sethe’s daughters, were really terrific.

Thandie Newton was “Beloved” & Kimberly Elise played Denver.

Joyce Miller Bean

And the older woman who played Baby Suggs?

Yes, the late Beah Richards. She died not too long ago. She was a wonderful actress, someone who had really been through the mill. She gave a very positive, powerful performance. I’m glad you brought her up. Her character is one I’m proud to see on the screen: the strength, the power, the woman holding it together, the glue holding her family together, the evangelist part of her -- that was a very strong & a very realistic character. I had no problem with her!

Right! Those three performances – Beah Richards, Kimberly Elise & Thandie Newton – all three of them should have been nominated for Supporting Actress Oscars. But because so few people saw the film, they were shut out… 

Yes, but I think that filmmakers have a responsibility to make films that will draw us. The proof was in the pudding. People didn’t like it because, beautiful film though it was, it didn’t draw us. In my opinion, African-American audiences were tired of it: Been there, done that, got the bloody t-shirt.

But since you mentioned the Academy Awards, last year people didn’t suddenly open their eyes & recognize what filmgoers have known for a long time -- that certainly Denzel Washington is a very gifted actor & I believe Halle Berry is a very fine actress too. It was political. There was pressure. But look at those film roles! MONSTER’S BALL? What is Leticia but a glorified prostitute? Her husband is on “Death Row.” Hello? Isn’t anybody a happily married person or even just a balanced soul?!? Denzel’s character in TRAINING DAY was a crooked cop. 

I agree with you completely. When you look for pictures of family life, there’s REMEMBER THE TITANS. I thought it was a wonderful movie; the relationship Denzel has with his wife & daughters in that film is a picture of warmth. So I also felt there some kind of defeat in the fact that we didn’t reward Denzel for REMEMBER THE TITANS but chose instead to reward him for TRAINING DAY

Joyce: Now this hits the nail on the head for me. I’m not saying that REMEMBER THE TITANS was “great filmmaking,” but it was a fine film, an enjoyable film. 

Did you ever see CAR WASH? CAR WASH is set in Los Angeles around 1978, with a variety of realistic multi-ethnic folks - African-Americans, Whites, Native Americans, Hispanics. And it’s just a typical day at a car wash, but it’s real. When I watch CAR WASH (& I must have watched it a thousand times), the Black characters in that film speak to me. 

SUNSHINE STATE has a lot of the qualities you’re talking about now -- more contemporary characters, more inter-family drama. Angela Bassett plays the main character.

There’s one great actress! Is it out on video yet?

Yes. Mary Alice plays her mother & Bill Cobbs plays a family friend. He’s really wonderful. And James McDaniel (from NYPD BLUE) plays her husband. And it’s a wonderful story about an African-American community at a point of change, but almost nobody saw it…

You have to build an audience, & there has to be a base of realism for that audience to be built. But the realistic, balanced view of African-Americans isn’t in the mindset of the average filmgoer. 

What’s on the “Wish List” for Joyce? Did you see CHICAGO yet?

Yes, I did.

When you walked out of CHICAGO, didn’t you think that Queen Latifah should star next in the Bessie Smith story? I mean can you see it: THE BESSIE SMITH STORY staring Queen Latifah!! 

That would be so great! She would marvelous! She could act her heart out in that, & it would really communicate a certain time in African-American life to many people: Black & White, old & young. 

One of your specialties is biography, Joyce. Who else…?

Bessie Coleman! Bessie Coleman was an “aviatrix.” That’s a sexist term, but that’s what she was called in her time. Most people have never even heard of her. We hear about Amelia Earhart & Beryl Markham, but Bessie Coleman -- when no one in America would teach her to fly (She was a woman! She was Black!), she worked as manicurist, saved enough money to buy a chili parlor, & worked there until she had enough money to go to France (which was the only country that would teach her to fly after World War I). She studied French in the evenings after work. She learned to fly her own airplane, came back, & opened a school of aviation for Blacks who wanted to fly. Then she died at a very young age doing stunt flying to raise funds for her school. This woman’s story is remarkable! Drama! Humor! Danger! Early death! Here’s all the stuff that makes a good “Hollywood” film!

So we want THE BESSIE COLEMAN STORY & THE BESSIE SMITH STORY. Who are we casting as Bessie Coleman? Thandie Newton & Kimberly Elise are both still waiting for their next great parts!

Well said. There are other stories too, warm, loving reflections of African-American life like those shown in a book called SPOON BREAD & STRAWBERRY WINE. I would like to be able to convey the feeling of the film AVALON: the family, the warmth, the reality, the ups & downs that people don’t usually see. I want to see films that show Blacks who think as well as dance. AVALON dipped in chocolate – make it clear that we are here too. 

Unfortunately, though, AVALON was not a commercial success…

I know it wasn’t, but I think it’s our task as viewers – we have to do our best to expand the base. We have to get people more accustomed, & then people will be intrigued & able to see that there is more to all of us.



Joyce Miller Bean is a member of the English Department in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences @ De Paul University in Chicago. A specialist in American Literature, Joyce formerly taught at St. Xavier University & Lexington College here in Chicago. She is also a free-lance writer as well as a professional storyteller who has appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago & Chicago Public Library. 

Joyce is the proud mother of two college students, son Kyle, (a graphic design major) & daughter Lauren, (who is a Cultural Religious Studies major with a minor in Anthropology).

In addition to the films discussed above, other films about the African-American experience on Joyce’s “WISH LIST” include:

Bio-Pics about the lives of great African-American movers-&-shakers such as Labor Leader A. Phillip Randolph, Dancer/Anthropologist Katherine Dunham, & Justice Advocate Ida B. Wells.

A historical film about the literati of the Harlem Renaissance which would include such cultural luminaries as Poet Langston Hughes & Novelist/Folklorist Zora Neale Hurston.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (2/9/2003)


Jan & Joyce @ DePaul. 
Photo taken by Joyce's daughter Lauren on 1/31/03.