Freak shows, spectacles, and carnivals: reading Jonathan Demme's beloved.
Urgently returning to the novel, my suspicions are confirmed. The screenplay, carefully written by Richard LaGravenese, Akosua Busia, and Adam Brooks, directly echoes Morrison's lyrical prose. Therefore, unlike the all-too-familiar chant, "the book was better than the film," followed by the list of cinematic infractions (cutting or adding of scenes, dialogue, characters, and so on), Beloved failed not because of its divergence from the novel but because there is no representational analogue to Morrison's textual project, specifically insofar as Beloved herself evades cinematic representation. Although, as Lynda Koolish suggests, Morrison's metaphors may be "strikingly visual" (433), it does not follow that these metaphors are translatable to a filmic portrayal. (1) While the film is certainly laudable, the translation of the novel to the screen reduced the complexity of the text, creating in its stead nothing short of a spectacle. Though reviews of the film ranged considerably, calling it everything from "one of the best movies of the year" that "has Oscar written all over it" (Baumgarten) to a "jaw-droppingly wrong-headed creative miscalculation" (Zelevinsky) that is "[p]roudly and blindly tedious" (Denby 253), numerous critics questioned the portrayal of the title character.
In a clearly positive review of the film, Bryan Powers qualifies his praise by adding: "The only performance in Beloved that could be argued as being faulty is that by Thandie Newton as Beloved herself. Her alternately ghoulish and clownish interpretation of the child-spirit in a woman's flesh garnered laughs from the audience during this critic's screening.... By making the phantom Beloved too concrete and grotesque, Newton loses the mystery needed for this abstract character." Vladimir Zelevinsky, who reads the first scene of haunting as "ridiculous" and "ludicrous," claims that "it's very hard to feel the pain of a former slave when this pain is manifested by a ghostly visitor moaning, contorting, and vomiting." David Denby of the New Yorker argues that Beloved "groan[s] and snort[s] like a sea beast" and "flops about like a rag doll roaring and hissing" (250). Charles Taylor's negative review of the film discusses at length the myriad problems with the characterization of Beloved on screen: "Nothing is more inexplicable here than Newton's performance, which is one of the most appalling I've ever seen from a professional actor. It's understandable that an actor might run into difficulties playing a literary device, a ghost who embodies her mother's guilt over committing infanticide. What isn't understandable is why Newton has chosen to play Beloved as a simpleton.... I would have sworn that as brilliant an actor's director as Demme would have been incapable of allowing an actor to make such a spectacle of herself." And finally, John C. Tibbetts argues that a major problem of the film is the characterization of Beloved, whom he considers "grotesque" and "monstrous": "The character of Beloved is no longer a meaningful metaphor in a poignant ghost story but a freak on display in a sideshow" (76).
Even as there are manifold reactions to the film, a consistent thread connecting these responses registers a discomfort with the portrayal of Beloved, which is complicated by the comments of the film's executive producer, Oprah Winfrey. The intention of making Beloved into a film, according to Winfrey, was "the same as Toni Morrison's intention in writing the book: I wanted people to be able to feel deeply on a very personal level what it meant to be a slave, what slavery did to a people, and also to be liberated by that knowledge" (preface). However, the film deconstructs its own project by portraying the character of Beloved as a filmic spectacle. That Beloved becomes the object of the gaze forecloses the possibility of identification between viewer and film. Instead, the metaphoric resonance of Beloved forcefully rendered on the page is lost in its celluloid transformation. Adapting the novel to the silver screen results in a problematic and unsettling transformation even as it faithfully adheres to its source. With the film bereft of the novel's metaphoric power, watching the resurrected baby on film becomes a voyeuristic exercise as viewers gaze in horror, interest, and curiosity. (2)
Compelled to apprehend this filmic spectacle, I dutifully wade through the unfamiliar terrain of film theory, but this process becomes an aborted effort at articulation. Years later I find the ticket stub. The materiality of the ticket, itself a reminder of viewership, opens up histories of cinematic racial spectacle, carnivals, and freak shows, providing an interpretative grid to read Demme's Beloved. The on-screen Beloved recalls the representation of colonized people who were routinely portrayed as animalistic, childlike, dangerous, and inferior. (3) There is a deeply imbricated relationship between cinema and colonization: "the beginnings of cinema coincided with the giddy heights of the imperial project, with an epoch where Europe held sway over vast tracts of alien territory and hosts of subjugated peoples" (Shohat and Stam 100). Though certainly not intentionally, Demme recasts the native other through a colonial lens, epitomized by the pairing of Beloved's first corporeal appearance with a traveling carnival. While the carnival occupies a minor position in the film, the sequencing of the carnival with Beloved's arrival suggests a link between them. In effect, Beloved's two entrances in the film, as apparition and physical being, solidify her position as the spectacle. (4) The voyeuristic gaze, the audience, and the exaggeration of otherness reinforce the relationship between films and carnivals, sites of entertainment traditionally marketed as educational venues: "The social origins of the cinema were schizophrenic, traceable both to the 'high' culture of science and literature and to the 'low' culture of sideshows and nickelodeons" (Shohat and Stare 105).
By the time the carnival scene appears in Demme's film, the terrorized family that inhabited 124 Bluestone Road is eviscerated--only Sethe and her daughter Denver remain. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, has passed, and Sethe's two boys, Howard and Buglar, have fled. After the initial scene of spectacle haunting, it is "eight years later," and the promise of spring has replaced the dead of winter. An old friend and fellow captive from the Sweet Home plantation, Paul D, enters the picture and very quickly emerges as the force that will battle the "evil" in the home on Bluestone Road. After Paul D's theatrical exorcism of what the viewer is now informed is a dead baby's ghost, he, Sethe, and Denver begin to resemble a nuclear family. Paul D, attempting to remedy Sethe and Denver's alienation from the community, enjoins to take them to a carnival on "Colored Thursday," the one weekday on which African Americans are admitted. While the family is at the carnival, the camera begins to cut back and forth between the carnival scenes and the viewers' first introduction to the physical "creature" that is Beloved. Before Beloved emerges from the swamps, the camera lingers on insects and trees, with peaceful sounds of nature dominating. As Beloved, fully dressed in black, surfaces from a pond, butterflies hover. Her belabored breathing is indistinguishable from the sounds of nature, the bullfrog's croaks and the insects' swarms. As the camera pans up her sleeping body, resting on the banks of a river, the swarm of beetles covering her body is revealed. Beloved is not aroused by this inundation; rather, the insects are shot as naturally inhabiting a host body. The beetles crawling in her mouth, ears, and face visually suggest an animal corpse beset with insects, a natural though disturbing scene. There is nothing in this initial presentation that reveals Beloved's humanity, a fact compounded by her juxtaposition with the carnival. Cinematically contextualized with outcasts of society, Beloved is like the other carnival attractions: marginalized, objectified, and demonized. (5) The film suggests that like the other human anomalies, including the "rubber-face boy" and the fat lady who spits, Beloved, whose breathing is conflated with the sounds of animals and fire breathers, belongs in the carnival. Indeed, while the camera lingers on Beloved, the sounds of the carnival are heard, a clear pairing between Beloved and the sideshow.
Heeding the barker's command, "Come one! Come forward! Come all! Do not fear! Come inside!," viewers enter a familiar spectacle of carnivals and freak shows, freighted with racial registries. The sideshow talker, calling attention to "a ferocious African savage, Kabutu, born with fangs and raised by wild animals," seems unaware that the performer's act is a grotesque parody of the African American audience's history of dehumanization. Although this exhibit of a wild animal-man, caged and belligerent, is meant to frighten and titillate spectators, Paul D disrupts this narrative by responding, "I knew this one back in Roanoke." Indeed, such disguises as the non-Western "other" were not uncommon in the history of freak shows: "Locals dressed in outrageous costumes and portrayed as authentic representatives of exotic non-Western tribes were particularly common, being easy to hire, cheap, and cooperative" (Bogdan 176). By explicitly foregrounding the carnival's engagement with narratives that perpetuated his own enslavement, Paul D voices the racist implication of this exhibit and thereby distances himself and the post-emancipation community from this ridiculous spectacle. His derision serves at once to undermine the dominant narrative's implicit association of African Americans with savagery, and more importantly turns the racist attraction into a joke that he owns, wresting power from the powerful. Paul D's trickster joke evokes a cathartic laugh from the audience of Demme's film, a significant moment of solidarity given Sethe and Denver's ostracized position in town.
The wide proliferation of these racist displays can be traced to the career of P. T. Barnum, a shrewd businessman who made a fortune commodifying 19th-century America's fears, interests, fascinations, and prejudices: "He introduced the rhinoceros to America, brought the first herd of elephants here, pioneered in the display of exotic fish and marine mammals. But he became best known for what he put forth as his 'living curiosities.' Giants, midgets, thin men, and bearded ladies careened across his stage for decades" (Kunhardt, et al. vii). It is noteworthy that Barnum's success was built on the exhibit of an African American woman named Joice Heth. (6) Heth was essential to the fame of Barnum, for his reputation as "the greatest showman on earth" was predicated on Heth, whom he advertised as "The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World." In all actuality, Heth was an enslaved woman whom Barnum claimed was 161 years old and the wet nurse of George Washington. Barnum "bought" Heth for $1,000.00 on August 6, 1835, and this exhibit proved very lucrative, earning an average of $1,500.00 per week. (7)
Despite Heth's blindness, infirmity, and age (records indicate that she was in her eighties), she was forced to maintain a rigorous exhibition schedule. She was "shown" six days a week nearly all day long, and for periods in the evening. The promotional material for the Heth exhibit, accompanied by the myriad newspaper articles, cast her as a "freak of nature," part human and part animal. Reiss explains that Heth's "claw-like" fingernails, "black paws" (69), and abnormal bowel habits (40) were frequently mentioned, as was her supposed predilection for "animal food" (82). Indeed, this so-called "exceptional creature" was so commodified by Barnum that after her death in 1836, she was publicly autopsied at the City Saloon on Broadway. Nearly 1,500 people attended this final exhibition. This posthumous display graphically demonstrates the spectatorial gaze: Heth's body, publicly consumed throughout her lifetime, was, even in death, open for the purview of a voyeuristic society. (8) Because Heth was subject first to the feeding frenzy of the slave trade and later to Barnum's itinerant exhibition schedule, her fictional narrative of nurturing the father of the nation is ironically apt. For while the country's foundation was built on bodies such as Heth's, there is no public memorial to this history. (9) Rather, the type of aggrandizement bestowed on Washington and the other Founders, who were monumentalized to bolster feelings of nationalism, was unavailable for African Americans, who, as Heth's death grotesquely personifies, were unceremoniously commodified, mutilated, and discarded.
Given the racialized landscape of slavery and colonization in the nineteenth century, white bodies were always already inscribed in the nation's imagination as being healthy, superior, pure, and clean, and thus it follows that whiteness was implicitly on stage as a normative measure along with those humans deemed freaks of nature. The rise of the carnival in the 1840s coincided with the height of the abolitionist movement (Reiss 86), so the world of the carnival is inextricably linked to the larger cultural discourse on race and society. Race superiority, metaphorically reiterated in the parading of overtly transgressive bodies, was made explicit as Barnum and other showmen staged grossly performative acts of racial identity.
Given Demme's conceptualization of Beloved, it is fitting that the film slides between her emergence from the swamp and the traveling carnival as it reveals that Beloved is, in effect, part of the show, extending the carnival spectacle to 124 Bluestone Road, the earlier site of theatrical haunting. The audience is aligned with Paul D, Denver, and Sethe as they attempt to apprehend this curiosity, now perched on a tree stump in their front yard. This situation recasts the initial scene in which the viewer, like the uneasy inhabitants of 124, is placed in opposition to the baby girl, whose performance creates a necessary distance between the viewer and the threatening force. When Beloved is first seen by Denver, Sethe, and Paul D, her head is tilted away from them and the viewer; she does not meet the character's or the camera's gaze. Instead, Beloved is objectified, and elicits Denver's response, "What's that?"
Here, the web of linguistic and visual signs returns the viewer to the terrain of the carnival. In fact, Denver's question, augmented by a pointing finger, evokes a particular era of freak show history by ushering into the film another racist caricature that dominated Barnum's sideshow, William Henry Johnson, whose humanity was questioned in the name of his exhibit: "What is it?" (Fig. 1). Popularly known as "the dean of the freaks," and christened Zip the Pinhead "after the archetypal Southern black figure Zip Coon" (Kunhardt, et al. 149), he was a "professional human oddity [who] spanned a vast era of circus and carnival life" (Drimmer 351). Exhibited from 1859 to the time of his death in 1926, he was viewed by some one hundred million spectators (Bodgan 141). A famous Currier and Ives lithograph of Johnson made for Barnum exaggerated his features, intending to reveal a cross-species of man and ape. The spear in his hand coupled with what looks like a palm tree and rocks implies a stereo-typical African-life setting. The text immortalizes Barnum's "original What is it?":
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]</p> <pre> Is it a lower order of MAN? or is it a higher order of MONKEY? None can tell! Perhaps it is a combination of both. It is beyond dispute THE MOST MARVELLOUS [sic] CREATURE LIVING. It was captured in a savage state in Central Africa, is probably about 20 years old, 4 feet high, intelligent, docile, active, sportive, and PLAYFUL AS A KITTEN. It has the skull limbs
and general anatomy of an ORANG OUTANG [sic] and the COUNTENANCE
of a HUMAN BEING. TO BE SEEN AT ALL HOURS AT BARNUM'S MUSEUM. (qtd. Hughes and Meltzer 62) </pre> <p>Various handbills continue this colonial portrayal explaining that this new "race of being" who was captured by "a party of adventurers ... in search of the Gorilla" initially walked on all fours and ate raw meat (Drimmer 351). In reality, Johnson, who was introduced as being" 'without a language and without country'" (Kunhardt, et al. 149), was an African American from New Jersey with a medical condition known as microcephalus.
Barnum, whose collection of humans recalls a slave trade economy, said of his latest "acquisition": "'I have since secured it and we call it 'What is it?'" (qtd. Bogdan 135). Barnum's ownership of Johnson and his quick reduction of him from subject to object particularly reveals Johnson's dehumanized status, literalized in his various display venues; at Coney Island he was placed in a cage, and at the American museum he was, at one point, positioned alongside two snakes and taught to speak what Barnum labeled "jungle language" (Kunhardt, et al. 149). "Pelted with coins, [and] called a 'cross between a nigger and a baboon'" (Kunhardt, et al. 149), Johnson was one of Barnum's most successful entertainers. His constructed persona provides a paradigm for reading the presence of non-whites and non-Western carnival and museum exhibits, such as female performers from the Congo, who were featured years after Johnson's death. Blatantly pandering to viewers' deeply held racist worldviews, the exhibit exoticized the women's aesthetic practice of enlarging their lips with captions that read "mouths and lips as large as those of full-grown crocodiles!" and "Genuine monstermouthed Ubangi Savages." Like Johnson, the performers were renamed. The promoters of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus "resettled" the performers by christening them "Ubangis" after a district of Africa because it "had the proper exotic ring" (Bogdan 194).
It is not serendipitous that the golden age of the freak show coincided with the building of America's colonial empire. The exploration of the non-Western world, coupled with the transatlantic slave trade, provided the backdrop for America's imperialist gaze, with the native "other" appearing not merely in the arena of popular entertainment, but particularly in scientific and medical communities. Traveling carnivals, circuses, and freak shows, though seemingly transgressive insofar as they violated social propriety as well as blurred the mapping of class hierarchy by catering to both the elite and the working class, were highly conservative institutions, culturally constructing and reinforcing racial differences:</p> <pre> Barnum helped commercialize scientific
interest in racial anomaly in his American Museum, where he exhibited
African Americans with vitiligo, albinism, and microcephaly, proposing that they were the "missing links" in an evolutionary chain extending upward from monkey to black man to white.... By holding bodies that were supposed to be abnormal and deviant
up for display, freak shows asked their audiences to dwell implicitly on the normative meanings of the body: particularly, what it meant to be "white" or "black." (Reiss 41-42) </pre> <p>Barnum's American museum capitalized on US society's desire to behold new information about the world and its inhabitants. While "many people still considered theaters and plays immoral works of the devil," Barnum's museum, "although filled with sensational freaks and show business features, was still regarded as an educational, therefore perfectly moral, institution" (Toll 29). Thus, the handbill for the "Tribe of Genuine Ubangi Savages" was promoted as the "Greatest Educational Feature of all Time!" (qtd. Hughes and Meltzer, italics added 63).
The promulgation of scientific racism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries not only worked to justify human enslavement, global imperialism, and colonization, but it also created a sensational desire to behold new "species of man." Human difference registered through race, class, and gender was largely apprehended through the prism of biological determinism, which lent scientific authority to societal racism, prejudice, and inequities. Therefore, cinema--which, as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam contend, has roots in scientific exploration--"prolonged the museological project of gathering three-dimensional archeological, ethnographic, botanical, and zoological objects in the metropolis. Unlike the more auratic and 'inaccessible' elite arts and sciences, a popularizing cinema could plunge spectators into the midst of non-European worlds, letting them see and feel 'strange' civilizations" (106). Because science, as Stephen Gould maintains, is "a socially embedded activity" (21), fallacious studies were undertaken to confirm existing societal prejudice. Numerous people contributed to the theory of racial typology: Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, in On the Natural Variety of Mankind, provided the first system of racial classification in 1776, which was followed by Georges Cuvier's 1800 treatise on racial hierarchy. (10) In 1854, Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau published his famous, multi-volume study Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, in which he outlined the traits associated with "races" and argued against "race-mixing" (Outlaw 62, 63). (11) In the human taxonomy set forth by these and others of the period, whites routinely occupied the privileged position while African diasporic peoples inhabited the bottom of the scale, closer to animals than to whites: "it is obviously not accidental that a nation still practicing slavery and expelling its aboriginal inhabitants from their homelands should have provided a base for theories that blacks ... are separate species, inferior to whites" (Gould 42-43).
In this age, social behaviors and the physiognomy of racial bodies were filtered through pseudoscientific research. An extreme example of such thought can be located in the work of S. A. Cartwright, a southern physician who speculated that African Americans were genetically inferior because of inadequate breathing practices, a so-called medical condition that he labeled "dysesthesia." Cartwright also medicalized the escape of slaves, which he called "drapetomania," an "insane desire to run away" (Gould 70, 71). Craniometery, the study of brain size through measurements of craniums, dominated the age and was the "leading numerical science of biological determinism" (Gould 25). In fact, the "concept of linking mental and physical traits lasted well into the twentieth century" (Shackel 9). While there were scientists attempting to prove that the cranial capacity of all humans were the same, the discourse relating cranial size to human intelligence and the capacity for civilization governed scientific circles. (12) Given this cultural context, William Henry Johnson's prominence is not surprising, for his microcephalic appearance merely exaggerated the prevailing doctrine. Returning to his handbill, it is clear that among other physical attributes, the size of his skull apparently provides compelling evidence for his genetic connection to non-human species, specifically the orangutan. The images and captions in leading medical journals differed insignificantly from the simian portraits constructed for freak show audiences. Indeed, Robert Bennett Bean, a Virginia physician, claimed, after highly questionable postmortem cranial studies, that "blacks are intermediate between 'man and the ourang-outang'" [sic] (qtd. Gould 79). All of these studies scientifically legitimized race as a biological category and implicitly sanctioned social relations in accordance with these spurious findings. As Outlaw argues, race "took root and grew to become part of common sense. 'Race' was now 'obvious'" (64).
Just as carnival and museum exhibits relied largely on positioning the performer as a cross between human and animals, the characterization of Beloved in Demme's film likewise tends towards animalism. (13) After Denver, Paul D, and Sethe inquire about Beloved's identity, she spells her name in a gravelly, frog-like voice, a disturbing signal that she is not fully human. While this auditory performance is less powerful than comical, it nevertheless registers Beloved's unnaturalness, and thus it follows that a shocked Sethe evokes once again the carnival in the scene, telling Beloved, "We just back from the carnival in Cincinnati." (14) Cinematically, this scene rehearses the very spectacle of the freak show: Sethe, Denver, and Paul D form a kind of half-circle around this human oddity and gaze at her with commingled looks of wonder and trepidation. Their wide-eyed stares are as much a part of the shot as is Beloved's unnaturalness, which suggests that their "normal" reaction to this "freak" should, likewise, be our own. In addition to Beloved's physical appearance and vocal performance, the film makes use of wildlife imagery to connote her presence. Scattered scenes of wild animals punctuate Beloved's appearance, which further implies her inhumanity. Nearly all of the scenes that are added to the film are of wildlife--foxes, ducks, deer, and birds in migration. This retreat to nature, though beautiful, reinforces the feral nature of Beloved. Because "animalization" is a key trope of colonization, a discourse that, "for Fanon, always resorts to the bestiary" (Shohat and Stam 137), it logically follows that Beloved is the only character connected to the wild; the others are shown only with domesticated animals. Like other "natives," she is associated "with the vegetative and the instinctual rather than with the learned and the cultural" (Shohat and Stam 138).
Some of Demme's wildlife clips do have direct metaphoric significance. After Paul D seemingly exorcises the baby ghost from 124 and before she announces herself in physical form, a series of images harbinger her transformation. Moving through natural stages of metamorphosis--those of bees, caterpillars, and butterflies--Demme provides a clue for the viewer to recognize the grown woman as the baby ghost. (15) Indeed, butterflies are recurring symbols of Beloved throughout the film, accompanying her emergence from the swamps, her first appearance in the yard of 124, and marking her absence in the film's conclusion. While the metaphoric connection of butterflies to Beloved upholds the logic of the narrative, she also connotes audibly to buzzing insects. Creating an ominous mood, the film suggests that like the insects, bees, and beetles, Beloved should be read as a dangerous infiltration. In fact, a pronounced buzzing sound accompanies one of Beloved's most disturbing portrayals in the film.
When Sethe runs out of money to buy sweets for her sugar-starved daughter, Beloved turns animalistic, a portrayal dramatized by a menacing swarm of insects, which cling throughout the film to windowsills, constantly threatening invasion. In the novel, Morrison writes that "sugar could always be counted on to please her. It was as though sweet things were what she was born for" (55). The careful reader recognizes that Beloved's starvation for sweets is linked to the "sugar water in cloth" (16) that the crawling-already? baby received as a substitute for breast milk. Thus unlike the movie's animalistic depiction, Beloved's maniacal desire for sweets can be read as tragic unfulfilled nurturing, the sugar water a metaphor for Sethe's inability to claim motherhood while enslaved. It is that which haunts the novel, not the screaming Beloved that tears at her throat until she draws blood. Again, the conceptualization of this scene from the novel is radically altered in the filmic presentation. Morrison writes, "Beloved sat around, ate, went from bed to bed. Sometimes she screamed, 'Rain! Rain!' and clawed her throat until rubies of blood opened there, made brighter by her midnight skin. Then Sethe shouted, 'No!' and knocked over chairs to get to her and wipe the jewels away" (Beloved 250). On the printed page such disturbances detail a tragic dimension of human bondage. The metaphoric implication of Beloved's blood as both valuable and precious--once again summoning the rationale for her mother's unthinkable act--is untranslatable to the film. The language of the text represents and reinforces Sethe's fierce love for her children, forcefully announcing their preciousness and their humanity despite their material condition as chattel.
This poignant illustration of devastated motherhood exemplifies the problematics of literalizing Beloved on screen. Morrison's explanatory prose forms the novel her readers read; however, absent its discursive balm, attempts to render Beloved's behavior mitigate her complexity. This subversion holds true throughout the film, for while much of Beloved's behavior is rendered literally, without Morrison's evocative prose, the unadorned Beloved, as this scene reveals, is portrayed as freakish, if not animalistic.
When Sethe is forced to answer for her murder, she returns to schoolteacher's cruel lesson, which catalogs the alleged animal characteristics of Sethe and the other Sweet Home slaves. It is this emotional devastation to which she would not subject her children. Sethe recognizes that far more than do physical beatings, the discourse of enslavement and humiliating excoriations indelibly scar. The novel discloses not only Sethe's profound despair at this linguistic dehumanization, but Paul D's as well: "Shackled, walking through the perfumed things honeybees love, Paul D hears the men talking and for the first time learns his worth. He has always known, or believed he did, his value--as a hand, a laborer who could make a profit on a farm--but now he discovers his worth, which is to say he learns his price. The dollar value of his weight, his strength, his heart, his brain, his penis, and his future" (Morrison, Beloved 226). The novel forces a recognition of the totality of personal and collective annihilation wrought by slavery, and the shame and trauma of such dehumanization made literal through the bit, the laceration, and the word; thus, there is a deep irony in Demme's recasting an animalistic persona over Beloved, the representation of Sethe's dead daughter and the larger symbol of the dedication page's remembrance of "sixty million and more" (Morrison, Beloved 1).
Like showmen who accentuated the grotesqueness of their exhibits, Demme's directorial decision to shock audiences with Beloved's otherness depletes the character of her resonance. In this way, Demme's project most differs from Morrison's, who has explained that, despite the narrative's rawness and brutality, she did not want the text to become "pornographic":</p>
<pre> It seemed important to me that the action in Beloved--the fact of infanticide--be immediately known, but deferred, unseen. I wanted to give the reader all the information and the consequences
surrounding the act, while avoiding engorging myself or the reader
with the violence itself. I remember writing the sentence where Sethe cuts the throat of the child very, very late in the process of writing the book. I remember getting up from the table and walking outside for a long time--walking around the yard and coming
back and revising it a little bit and going back out and in and rewriting the sentence over and over again ... each time I fixed that sentence so that it was exactly right, or so I thought, but then I would be unable to sit there and would have to go away and come back. I thought that the act itself had to be not only buried but also understated, because if the language was going
to compete with the violence itself it would be obscene or pornographic
(qtd. Schappell and Lacour 110-11). </pre> <p>Morrison's relentless revision does not yield gratuitous scenes; rather, there is a measured quietness to her prose, an invitation to readers to register slowly the ensuing narrative. As serious readers, we move back and forth in the novel, reading and rereading passages, inhabiting our analysis, as we move alternately amid Sweet Home; slave ship holds; underground boxes in Alfred, Georgia; leaky boats on the Ohio River; 124 Bluestone Road and the wide-open Clearing. Beloved is, finally, an invitation for the reader to dwell. Such quiet contemplation is unavailable in the film.
Despite the film's protracted length of nearly three hours, the narrative is prepackaged--paced, assembled, sequenced, and contained. Contemplation gives way to spoonfed emotions of fear, wonder, and curiosity that do not merely disrupt our reading response, but severely limit its scope. In short, the film bankrupts the text of its complexity, and becomes, explicitly in the case of Beloved's portrayal, pornographic. Beloved graphically urinates, vomits, chokes, screams, and sexually assaults Paul D. While these unseemly behaviors are understood on the page, literalizing these metaphoric conceptualizations closes down their rhetorical value. (16) Morrison's [possessive] risks on the printed page are at best reduced and confounding in the film, and at worst dehumanizing and othering. Beloved's contemporary viewers parallel 19th-century carnival spectators, watching "blacks and Indians ... usually represented as savage, grotesque, freakish, comical, exotic, and profoundly uncivilized" (Reiss 9).
Historically, the ethnographic gaze of the camera "like the microscope, anatomized the 'other'" (Shohat and Stam 106). Indeed, photographic advertisement was key in the creation of "otherness." In the case of carnivals, world fairs, and freak shows, the promotion of human oddities relied on meticulously crafted public personas. Managers arranged sittings at major studios wherein photographers worked to create the desired image--exotic backdrops of faraway lands were included, and performers' physical traits were exaggerated and distorted, often by placing the "freak" next to "normal" people (family members or managers). 17 Successful images were reproduced by the hundreds.
Indeed, it was customary to place these freak portraits alongside formal family portraiture in conventional American households of the nineteenth century. Resting on stands, such photographic installation was, in effect, "the television of Victorian homes" (Bogdan 11). It underscores human difference as a long-standing arena of entertainment that, above all else, reassures viewers of their normalcy. It was at once disturbing and comforting to gaze at human difference, for the anxiety that attended these images ironically alleviated spectators' own. The exoticized body, accentuated by mysterious settings and costumes, exposes the sexual excess that was part of the attraction. (18)
The aberrant sexuality attached to freak show performers both calls upon and revises the stereotype of unbridled and animalistic sexuality ascribed to Black bodies. (19) Through the association of human oddities with physiological deviance, they become surrogates for racially marginalized peoples. Therefore, similar narratives of deviant and polluted sexuality were implicitly mapped onto the bodies of performers. However, the limitations imposed on the physiques of human rarities necessarily altered their construction. Titillating stories of obese women wedded to emaciated men, or giant men married to female dwarves, were quite popular, and photographs often captured such couples in their wedding attire. These images indicate bizarre sexuality. While the portrayal of Beloved's body on film is not nearly as "unseemly" as that of other human wonders (viz., bodies with missing appendages and figures attached to parasitic twins), it is nevertheless a site of physical fascination, which, as the film highlights, includes abnormal sexuality. The directorial choice to reveal Beloved's pubic hair, a graphic and unorthodox display given the film's R rating, invites an overly sexualized gaze. Beloved, "the sexually hungry subaltern," is, like other colonized subjects, represented as having an unrestrained libido (Shohat and Stam 143). Beloved's copulation with Paul D is rendered in the novel as a necessary, yet devastating, confrontation with his past traumas. Literalized on screen, however, this encounter merely stresses intimacy with a corrupt body, which like Joice Heth's (Fig. 2), is constructed as "grotesque," "barely human," and "repulsive" (Reiss 69). This distasteful scene supports the persona of the filmic Beloved--inhuman, abnormal and abhorrent. (20) While the novel expressly reveals the need to remember, despite the suffering involved in doing so, the film viewer yearns merely to forget the nightmare that intruded upon what promised to be the makings of a happy family. This disparity occurs because the film does not accommodate Beloved as a redemptive source.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Morrison's Beloved is a vehicle of physical transgression--at once a ghost, Sethe's slain baby girl, a woman escaping her housebound captivity, enchained Africans in the holds of ships, bodies on the ocean floor, the collective ancestors, and, most significantly, rememory made flesh. That she embodies memory allows for the community's painful individual and shared acts of rememory, which ultimately, as the novel reveals, promise healing. Yet this capacity for restoration is absent in the film. On screen, Beloved, lacking her multiple identities, is reanimated merely as a freak of nature, a savage, the epitome of otherness. In short, she is a horrific spectacle that haunts 124, which Demme has translated as a classic haunted house, cinematically bathed in grays and blues. (21) If 124 is merely a haunted house, emptied of its metaphoric value, then there is no need to confront it as a metonym of the nation, a point stressed throughout the novel and voiced directly by Baby Suggs. Answering Sethe's question of whether they should move from 124, Baby Suggs replies: "'Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief'" (Beloved 5). However, by reducing the scope of Beloved to no more than a sideshow character's, the trauma she wreaks on 124 is localized, inviting no reflection on personal or national history. Indeed, like freak show performances and their corollaries, colonial photography and cinema, which "drew clear boundaries between the subject looking and the object being looked at, between traveler and 'traveled upon' " (Shohat and Stam 104), the film, unlike the novel does nothing to suture that gap. The true monstrosity that the novel lays bare--the debased trade of selling human flesh--is supplanted in Demme's film by freak show grotesqueries.
The haunting of Morrison's Beloved is layered, intimate, personal, and not readily exorcised. Incapable of addressing the last two pages of the novel, unable to summon the word, the pain and the history, the film, finally, becomes profane. As careful readers of Morrison's novel, we behold the loneliness that cannot be rocked, we read and reread the ending, hoping for "truth in timbre" (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 15), facing the pain and the horror that is our own, our nation's visage, refracted in the shifting photograph and the "underwater face" (Beloved 275). If readers are left with nothing short of trauma, no easy fix, "certainly no clamor for a kiss," then Beloved is not, as the film portrays, an exotic sideshow freak; she is like "weather," omnipresent, absolute and shared (Morrison, Beloved 275). The film fails to recognize that the power of Beloved is this.
Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1995.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.
Baumgarten, Marjorie. Rev. of Beloved, dir. Jonathan Demme. The Austin Chronicle: Film Guide 19 Oct. 1998. <http://www.austinchronicle.com/gbas/Calendar/Film?Film=oid/%25A1861>.
Bodgan, Richard. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
"The Cast of Beloved." Oprah Winfrey Show. 16 Oct. 1998. Transcript by Burrelle's Information Services.
Crane, Jonathan Lake. Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage P, 1994.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
Demme, Jonathan, dir. Beloved. Perf. Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Touchstone Pictures, 1998.
Denby, David. "Haunted by the Past." The New Yorker 26 Oct. and 2 Nov. 1998: 248-50, 253.
Drimmer, Frederick. Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities. New York: Amjon P, 1973.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.
Hughes, Langston, and Milton Meltzer. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment. Englewood Cliffs, N J: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Koolish, Lynda. "Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representation in Toni Morrison's Beloved: Postcolonial Theory/Postcolonial Text." African
American Review 29 (1995): 421-38.
Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt Ill, and Peter W. Kunhardt. P. T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Lakongo, Antoine. "Saartjie Baartman Comes Home at Last." New African 407 (May 2002): 21. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume, 1987.
--. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Plume, 1993.
--. "The Art of Fiction." Interview with Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. Paris Review 35.128 (1993): 83-125.
Outlaw, Lucius. "Toward a Critical Theory of 'Race.' "Anatomy of Racism. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 1990.58-82.
Powers, Bryan. "Bewitched, Bothered and Beloved." The Aisle Seat 1988. <http://www.g21.net/film7.html>.
Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.
Ross, Karen. Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television. Cambridge: Polity P, 1996.
Shackel, Paul A. Memory in Black and White: Race, Commemoration, and the Post-Bellum Landscape. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira P, 2003.
Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Smith, Bonnie. Imperialism: A History in Documents. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Taylor, Charles. "The Designated Martyr." Salon 16 Oct. 1998. <http://archive.saIon.com/ent/movies/reviews/1998/10/16reviewa.html>.
Tibbetts, John C. "Oprah's Belabored Beloved." Literature/Film Quarterly 27.1 (1999): 74-76.
Toll, Robert C. On With the Show: The First Century of Show Business in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.
Winfrey, Oprah. Journey to Beloved. New York: Hyperion, 1998.
Zelevinsky, Vladimir V. Rev. of Beloved, dir. Jonathan Demme. The Tech 23 Oct. 1998. <http://www.tech.mit.edu/V118/N5/beloved.6.1.52a.html>.
(1.) While Koolish argues that the novel is a "profoundly cinematic text" that makes use of numerous filmic strategies, including vivid imagery, camera cuts, close-ups, long-shots and framing scenes, her article predates Demme's Beloved.
(2.) Despite the troubling depiction of Beloved, there are many achievements in the film, including the casting of Beah Richards in the role of Baby Suggs. Not only is her acting inspired, but the sepiatoned cinematography that characterizes her preaching at the Clearing honors Morrison's prose. Likewise, Oprah Winfrey as Sethe, Danny Glover as Paul D, Kimberly Elise as Denver, and Lisa Gay Hamilton as the young Sethe offer very strong performances that unfortunately are overshadowed by the overzealous characterization of Beloved.
(3.) It is particularly disturbing that the film, which offers a scathing critique of slavery and its haunting legacy, represents the critical figure of the enslaved, Beloved, by recycling dominant tropes of Africans that have occupied a white racist imaginary. Ross sheds light on the insidious ways that racial stereotypes circulate in the media: "The repetitive framing of particular images in certain ways eventually leads to those images being seen as the definitive statement on 'those' people and the groups to which 'they' belong. Images thus become transformed over time, from being merely symbolic to connoting reality.... Contained within the stereotyping process is the structuring of implicit power relations where the gaze is of the dominant, looking at the subordinate" (4).
(4.) While the cast of the film is almost entirely African American, the character of Beloved alone embodies the stereotypical tropes of blackness as constituted in colonialist discourse, and thus becomes the emblematic representation of racialized difference: " 'traditional cinema produces a structure of seeing within which the black body is constituted as the object of the look, thus reproducing traditional relations in society'" (qtd. Ross 8). Ross continues, "When the film medium was in its infancy, Thomas A. Edison and his associates were producing films such as Pickaninnies (1894), Negro Dancers (1895) and Dancing Darkies (1897). The attraction of using black artistes [sic] in these early film efforts lay in the vitality and mystery that surrounded these 'exotics,' characteristics which were missing from the 'normal' white subject" (8).
(5.) No longer the site of memory or the legacy of slavery, this figure is reduced to a sideshow freak, who later in the film performs carnival tricks. When Denver takes Beloved to the chicken coop to behold furry baby chicks, Beloved puts a live chicken in her mouth. Here, Beloved's circus trick recalls a well-known freak show attraction, the Geek, who bit the heads off of chickens, rats, and bats.
(6.) Barnum's personal politics were deeply racist: "Routinely referring to black people as 'darkeys' and 'colored gemman,' and boldly publishing such slurs as 'niggers always like jewels,' Barnum in the 1840s was as prejudiced as almost any other white person in the country. He argued for the necessity of ongoing slavery and remained adamantly opposed to the growing moral cause of the abolitionists, so that he could write, '[I]f the blacks were ... set free and there was no army to protect the whites, the black would murder them and take possession of their property.' And even though his point of view would change dramatically and totally in the decades ahead, in the 1840s, catering to the public's prejudices was something it would not occur to him to question" (Kunhardt et. al 74).
(7.) Reiss explains that it is unclear whether Barnum was a slaveholder with the purchase of Heth, for his autobiographical musings are contradictory: In 1854, he wrote that he" 'became the proprietor of the negress,'" but in 1869, it was altered to the" 'proprietor of this novel exhibition'" (24). Whether or not he actually owned Heth (New York had abolished slavery prior in 1829), Barnum's "transaction" lays bare his ownership of his performers.
(8.) Heth's life and posthumous experiences parallel those of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman born in 1790 and taken to London and "exhibited like a freak" (Lakongo 21). Nicknamed the Hottentot Venus because of her protruding genitalia (she had a condition known as steatopygia), she was exhibited naked at society balls and "handled" by "a showman of wild animals" (Lakongo 21). After her death in France, she was dissected and her organs, brain, and genitals were stored at the Musee de L'Homme where her remains, including a cast of her body, remained on display until 1976. Baartman's body was finally returned to South Africa for burial in 2002.
(9.) Shackel argues that the "exclusion of blacks from the national consciousness was an active process that was reinforced through written symbols, material symbols, and commemoration" and that it would take over a century before African Americans "could gain inclusion in the collective memory of the United States" (14).
(10.) Zoologist and anatomist Curvier took a special interest in Baartman, whom he compared to a baboon, studying her during her life and dissecting her after her death (Shohat and Stam 108).
(11.) This leading 19th-century theorist argued that there were three races--black people, who were "lacking in intellectual ability"; yellow people, who were "apathetic" and prone to "obesity"; and white people, who were "gifted with reflexive energy [and] extreme love of liberty" (Smith 96-97).
(12.) In 1897 anthropologist Franz Boas, mentor of Zora Neale Hurston, e.g., questioned the prevailing racist doctrines of unilinear evolution (groups that ranged from savagery to barbarism to civilization), and "challenged the notion that race was biologically fixed and permanent and that people could be ranked in proximity to apes" (Shackel 9).
(13.) In addition to Beloved's animal-like persona, she is also infantilized. Contextualized within the narrative, this infantilization is reasonable as she was developmentally arrested at the time of her death. However, the "trope of infantilization ... projects the colonized as embodying an earlier stage of individual human or broad cultural development" (Shohat and Stam 139), and thus coupled with her animalistic portrayal reinforces Beloved's position as undeveloped, "native other." So entrenched among whites was the belief, argued by Hegel, that "Africa is a land of perpetual childhood" (qtd. Reiss 64), that scientists worked to prove that "Black adults were anatomically and intellectually identical to White children" (Shohat and Stam 139); hence, the adjectives describing Johnson: "four feet high," "playful" and "active." Reducing people of color to the status of children is replayed in different guises throughout nations: "For Native Americans, the trope of infantilization took statutory form; their presumed childlike nature made them 'wards of the state.' Brazilian 'Indians' were not allowed to play themselves in films because of their legal status as children, and it was only in 1988 that the new Brazilian constitution recognized indigenous people as adult citizens" (Shohat and Stam 140).
(14.) Thandie Newton explains that she came up with the voice for Beloved after seeing Star Wars: "I was just goofing around at home with my husband and I could just do a brilliant Yoda impression. And then I just decided I could channel that" ("Cast of Beloved' 8).
(15.) Butterflies are a recurring motif for Demme, who has employed this symbol in nearly all of his work.
(16.) The filmic spectacle of Beloved marks an interesting parallel with the BBC's filming of a 4,000 year old sacred Hindu epic poem, Ramayana. Ross argues that the broadcast was so "theatricalized" that the "simplicity and subtleties of the text were entirely destroyed: it became just another fantasy adventure" (xii).
(17.) This is similar to the project of imperial filmmaking in which each "country had its own imperial genres set in 'darkest Africa,' the 'mysterious East,' and the 'stormy Caribbean'" (Shohat and Stam 109).
(18.) For Bakhtin the carnivalesque display of the human body, in its grotesque, open or vulgar form, becomes an important moment of social transgression. Celebrating that which is base inverts societal aesthetics, which fundamentally inverts power relations. However, the carnivals of Barnum and his contemporaries were culturally constructed affairs, in which those being carnivalized were demeaned, degraded, and objectified in order to uphold the conservative politics of the day, including imperialism and chattel slavery.
(19.) Shohat and Stam argue that as "the product of both science and mass culture, cinema combined traveling knowledge with traveling spectacles, conveying a view of the 'world itself as an exhibition.' The study of a hypersexualized 'other' in scientific discourse was paralleled by the cinema's scopophilic display of aliens as spectacle. Hollywood productions abounded in 'exotic' images of mobbing native bodies" (108).
(20.) Given the number of reviewers that compared Newton's portrayal of Beloved to Linda Blair's portrayal of the demon-possessed girl in The Exorcist (1973), it is reasonable to read Beloved as a horror film. As Stephen King reasons, horror films are related to freak shows, where "you look at the guy with three eyes, or ... the fat lady ... or Mr. Electrical.... And when you come out ... you say, 'Hey, I'm not so bad'" (qtd. Badley 10). Further, that Beloved is precariously situated between the dead and the living, as apparition and physical being, is a staple of horror: "Whatever blurs the human frame, whatever disturbs the line between human and nonhuman, every unclear delineation between the not-us and the subject with constitutional integrity is horrific" (Crane 35). Finally, the grotesqueness of Beloved, in particular the gratuitous scenes of flesh, reinforce the movie's inclusion in the horror genre, for "horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh" (qtd. Crane 32). The obsession with the body and the trafficking of human flesh once again recalls the spectacle inherent in freak shows and carnivals.
(21.) Davis argues, "Talking about ghosts in conversation or a novel is a different matter from depicting them in a film. A haunted house, according to the witness of former slaves in Kentucky, has doors banging, objects moving noisily, and animals propelled across the room. When today's audiences see such goings-on in the film Beloved, after so many poltergeist movies, they seem hackneyed and even funny" (113).
Anissa Janine Wardi is Associate Professor of English at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she served as the Buhl Professor in 2004-05. She has written Death and the Arc of Mourning in African American Literature (2003) and co-edited African American Literature (Penguin Academics, 2004). She would like to thank her colleague, Lynne Dickson Bruckner, for providing valuable insight on earlier versions of this essay.
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|Author:||Wardi, Anissa Janine|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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