A Ghost Story for Today
by Li Onesto
Revolutionary Worker #982, November 15, 1998
What is it like to have a tree growing on your back? Branches of scars twisting across your skin. Human flesh, hardened by the lash. The wound healed, but only on the outside.
What is it like to have a ghost inhabit your house? Not a dangerous haint--just a sad one. Embodying a past that is almost past enduring. Conjuring up memories of what can't be undone. Won't let you alone, even for a day.
This is the story of Beloved--Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning book, now brought to the screen by Oprah Winfrey with the brilliant direction of Jonathan Demme.
It is 1873, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe (played by Oprah Winfrey), once a slave, has escaped and lives with her 19-year-old daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise). Their house on Bluestone Road is, in Toni Morrison's words, "peopled by the living activity of the dead."
Paul D (Danny Glover) was also a slave on "Sweet Home" plantation. Like Sethe, he was owned by "schoolteacher." He's been trudging dirt roads for 18 years--trying to keep the scars of bondage from inhabiting his soul. One day he shows up on Sethe's doorstep and when he crosses the threshold, he's thrown into a dizzying, heart-pounding world of spirits. Flying cups and saucers. Pulsating red light. Tables that attack. Flashes of unspeakable inhumanity. It's scary enough to make you run. But Paul D stays, wanting to make a new life with Sethe.
A few days later, Beloved (Thandie Newton) arrives. Who is this strange young woman? Drooling, croaking voice with baby skin and gestures. How could it be--her feet are new, never been walked on. She's about the age Sethe's other daughter would have been--the baby girl Sethe killed to keep from being taken back to slavery, the child Sethe lost the day slave-catchers arrived to claim their property, only 28 sunsets after Sethe crossed into free territory.
Everyone is overwhelmed by the mysterious force of Beloved. Sethe who loves all her children--here, gone, run away, or dead--is utterly consumed, making up for lost time. Denver, who hasn't stepped out the yard in years, comes out of her silent, secret shell, enchanted by her new sister. Paul D struggles to preserve his kind, gentle love for Sethe, now in competition with a force he can't understand.
Beloved takes you on an intense, magical, wild ride. Part ghost story, part mystery. A love story, full of wrenching heartache and wise humor. It draws you in deep, wraps itself around you, makes you laugh and cry--then stays with you for days, like really fine art does. You don't just watch Beloved. You live it.
Beloved moved me in a way that brought to mind the Maoist view that art must concentrate and intensify life, must raise it to a higher plane.
The dazzling cinematography is one minute in the here-and-now, then fantastical the next. Sometimes, you don't know what's real and what ain't--and neither do the characters on the screen<%2>. The images alone will haunt and provoke you for days.
The acting in Beloved is wondrous, allowing you to really get to know the characters in a deep way. But true to the book, the story unfolds mysteriously. And bit by bit you learn their secrets. At each step there are missing pieces of the puzzle. Who is Beloved and what does she want? What really happened the day the slavecatchers came? What will it take to free Denver from her rebellious isolation? Will Paul D's love for Sethe endure?
By the end of the story, you know a lot more about what put--and keeps--the fire in Sethe's eyes. But none of the answers in Beloved are simply handed over to you. In many ways, the answers come in washes of shock and horror, laughter and tears. And by the end of the movie, you are brought to a place where you can embrace Beloved on many different levels.
I know a lot of religious people who see Beloved will bring to it their belief in spirits, life after death, and Jesus. But, being a dialectical, historical materialist, I related to the magical events of Beloved from a different perspective. As Bob Avakian pointed out in "Art and Revolutionary Imagination," (RW No. 952): "It is one of the characteristics of art that it does not, and should not be required to, adhere strictly to reality. In other words, in movies, plays, paintings and other kids of artistic creation, quite often the artist does not present reality as it actually is, but in a different way...in order to get the audience and people more generally to look at the world and at reality in a deeper way." Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, who drowned her child to prevent them from being taken back to slavery. But by bringing the ghost of Beloved to life, Toni Morrison gives us a truly deep understanding of what these oppressive relations really meant to the people.
The gift of the movie is that it allows us to walk in Sethe's shoes. Our gut confronts the horror of slavery. Our adrenaline is pumped by the absolute rightness of resistance. When Sethe holds her head high, refusing to be broken, she embodies the spirit of Mao's famous words that "Where there is oppression, there is resistance" and "It's right to rebel!" And one of the things that makes Beloved so powerful is how it brings this universal and relevant theme to life.
When Paul D finds out that Sethe killed her own child, he tells her she was wrong. He says, "It could have been worse. There could have been some other way." Sethe's eyes harden, her words firm with conviction. She says, "They ain't at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain't got em... It ain't my job to know what's worse. It's my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that."
Later, when Sethe thinks another white man has come to take Beloved away, she is overtaken by this same determination to keep her children from the lashes of slavery. But this time she finds redemption in going after the "enemy." Oprah called this scene her "personal attack on slavery."
What was it like for your children to be the property of others--to be bought and sold? What was it like to not even be able to enjoy their laughter because you knew, one day, you might come home and they would be gone?
Baby Suggs (Beah Richards) is Sethe's mother-in-law--bought out of slavery by her enslaved son, Halle, and sent on to Ohio, where she becomes a spiritual leader. In a powerful scene, she's preaching in the woods and says, "Here in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you!" And with her arms outstretched in an endless hug, Baby Suggs calls out, "Let the children come. And let your mothers hear you laugh."
When Sethe is reunited with her children after escaping to freedom, she says, "I hear my boys laugh a laugh I never heard before. First I get scared, then I realize if they laugh that hard till it hurt, be the only hurt they have all day."
Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and other actors in Beloved said at times, the emotional weight of some scenes became overwhelming--as they brought the journey of Sethe and Paul D to the screen. It is a journey that reveals how the whole system of slavery twisted the lives of the people and the capacity of the oppressed to defeat the slavemaster.
But Beloved is also a ghost story for today.
When Paul D gets a job on a hog farm, he's happy to be working for a wage. But another former slave is quick to remind him, "Jus cuz you can't see the chains, don't mean they ain't there." And we are reminded that while slavery ended in this country, capitalism has never stopped its systematic oppression of Black people. It has never stopped creating ghosts like Beloved, that both haunt and challenge us.
What is it like to grow up being told, everywhere you turn, you're inferior because of the color of your skin? What is it like, living in ghettos occupied by brutal police who treat the people like animals?
What is it like to not be able to enjoy the growing up of your kids--to see them blamed, criminalized and jailed by the system. To see their shoulders, always sagging, with no hope for the future? To be afraid every time they walk out the door, because their life could be stolen by men in blue?
Nicholas Heyward Jr., 13, shot dead by police for having a toy gun. Anthony Baez, choked to death by NYPD after his football accidentally hit a cop car. Sheila Detoy, 17, shot by San Francisco police while riding in a car. Angel Castro, Jr., 15, shot to death by Chicago police after his bike hit a cop car. Yong Xin Huang, ninth grade student, thrown through a glass door and shot by police in Brooklyn. José Antonio Gutierrez, 14, shot in the back by the LAPD.
Hundreds of parents are haunted by the ghosts of their beloved children, whose young lives were cut short by the police. Rodney King was mercilessly beaten by LAPD, modern-day slavecatchers. A town called Jasper now burns in our hearts, as the place where a Black man was dragged to his death in a modern-day KKK lynching.
Beloved is both a story of the past and a story of and for today. It's a story that can steel our hearts--because it shows that wherever there is resistance, wherever people refuse to be beaten down, there is hope for a different future and a better world.
Note: Chairman Avakian's article, "Art and Revolutionary Imagination," is available on RW Online--www.mcs.net/~rwor.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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