Beloved: About The Production

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Oprah Winfrey felt that Beloved was unlike any other story she had ever read, and that she was destined to bring it to life as a film. "After I read the book," she says, "I felt that Beloved was part of the reason I was born, to tell that story on screen. I wanted to do with a movie what Toni Morrison had done with a book. She allowed us to see what slavery felt like, and never before had I seen a piece of work that allowed you to go into the interior of a person’s spirit, to understand what slavery did to their soul."

She continues, "To say that I thought I knew something about slavery&emdash;having lived in this country as a Negro, then a Black person, and now an African-American&emdash;this movie makes the difference between understanding it and knowing it."

Beloved’s author Toni Morrison is recognized as one of American literature’s greatest living talents. Beloved was published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature the same year. In 1993, Ms. Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work, which, in addition to Beloved, includes The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Jazz.

"Beloved" is director/producer Jonathan Demme’s first film since the critical and commercial hit "Philadelphia" in 1993, for which Tom Hanks won an Academy Award® for Best Actor. Demme won an Academy Award® for Best Director for "The Silence of the Lambs" in 1991, one of five Academy Awards® presented to the film including Best Picture.

The key creative team assembled for "Beloved" includes such longtime Demme collaborators and respected talents as director of photography Tak Fujimoto, production designer Kristi Zea (winner of a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy as one of the producers of "As Good As It Gets"), costume designer Colleen Atwood (an Academy Award® nominee for "Little Women") and editors Carol Littleton (an Academy Award® nominee for "ET: The Extraterrestrial") and Andy Keir (editor of the Academy Award® nominated film "Mandela"). The composer is Rachel Portman, who won a Best Original Score Academy Award® in 1997 for "Emma."

The cast of "Beloved" is headed by Winfrey in the role of Sethe, a woman of "iron eyes and backbone to match." Winfrey is a highly respected and versatile actress, producer, television personality, businesswoman, philanthropist and an increasingly influential advocate for literature. In addition to "The Color Purple," she subsequently starred in the acclaimed television films "Before Women Had Wings" and "The Women of Brewster Place," both produced by Harpo Films.

Danny Glover portrays Paul D, the "last of the Sweet Home men," a man with "something blessed in his manner. Women saw him and wanted to weep." An actor of rare sensitivity and seemingly limitless range, Glover lists among his film credits the highly successful "Lethal Weapon" films, as well as "Grand Canyon," "To Sleep With Anger," "Bopha!," "Silverado" and "Witness."

Thandie Newton plays the title role in "Beloved," the strange, childlike young woman with soft, new, unlined skin and eyes so "big and black that there seems to be no expression there at all." At 16, Newton played the leading role in the Australian film "Flirting" and she has since starred in such films as "Jefferson In Paris," "Interview With the Vampire" and "Gridlock’d." She recently completed filming Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Siege," co-starring with David Thewlis.

Kimberly Elise is cast as Sethe’s resilient youngest child Denver, born during Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home. Rumors about Denver’s family troubles have made her a social outcast, after a childhood made more painful by the death of a sister and the loss of two runaway brothers. Elise, who made her film debut in "Set It Off," received a CableACE Award for her supporting role in "The Ditchdigger’s Daughters," and has also completed the AFI’s Director’s Fellowship Program.

Renowned actress Beah Richards plays the key role of Baby Suggs. Seen in flashback, she is Sethe’s wise and loving mother-in-law, who becomes a self-made holy woman after slave life has broken her body but not "her great big heart." Richards, who received an Academy Award® nomination for her role as Mrs. Prentice in "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner," has appeared in such films as "Drugstore Cowboy," "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Great White Hope," and is an inductee into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame for her theater work.

The experience of reading Beloved moved Oprah Winfrey, she says, in a way she had never felt before. "Beloved is about what slavery did to people. It’s about how it drove people mad, forced people to make choices no human being should have to make, and what happens as a result of making those choices. It’s about the death of self, the birth of self and finding ways to make yourself whole."

There was a real-life model for Sethe, the novel’s leading character. Toni Morrison had been inspired by the story of a woman named Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who escaped with her children to Cincinnati, Ohio, which is also Ms. Morrison’s birthplace.

Over the next several years, as Winfrey’s career as a television personality grew into superstardom, she continued to develop the project through her film and television production company, Harpo Films. (Her company’s name is her own spelled backwards).

Unbeknownst to Winfrey, in December of 1996, Kate Forte, head of Harpo Films/producer, sent the script to Jonathan Demme and his partner Edward Saxon at their production company, Clinica Estetico.

Demme says, "I took some scripts home with me over Christmas vacation, and ‘Beloved’ was at the top of the pile. I read it and just fell in love with the script." For the director, to be given the chance to make such a powerful and unforgettable story was "a dream come true."

Demme and his partner Edward Saxon flew to Chicago to meet Oprah Winfrey and Kate Forte, and quickly forged an alliance. Demme says, "I have had such admiration for Oprah for such a long time. She’s one of my favorite Americans."

According to Demme, any concerns he may have had disappeared during their first meeting. He says, "Within half an hour of listening to Oprah express herself about her connection to the character of Sethe, and the immeasurable importance to her of the themes in the story, I went from being a little skeptical that we would be able to separate Oprah Winfrey from Sethe, to thinking there’s no one else who can play this part."

As the casting process began, it was clear that the project was finding its way into the hands of the actors destined to play each leading role.

Winfrey knew that the demanding role of Sethe would test her as an actress. Describing her character, she says, "Sethe’s arc is amazing. She came from a life where she only saw her mother in the fields, and took milk from someone else’s breast. At age 13 she moved to the Sweet Home plantation where she found the closest thing to family she had ever known. Then she gave birth to her own family, and was faced with the possibility of losing all that she had. Playing Sethe took me to a mental and physical part of myself that I did not know existed."

Director/producer Demme had known Danny Glover for several years, through their shared interests in Haiti and other issues. Demme says, "I’d been wanting to work with Danny since seeing him in ‘Places in the Heart.’. When I started reading the script, I pictured Danny, and that was it."

Glover, who cites Beloved as his favorite Toni Morrison work, read the script and was eager to be involved. "I was blown away by how the screenwriters had been able to capture the book," he says. Glover felt one of the greatest values of the story is the time in which it takes place, the transition as slaves learn to live as free men and women. Says Glover, "We haven’t come to terms with that experience, and the relationship that experience has to the moment right after. An enormous wave of humanity comes out of this experience."

Glover also felt a personal kinship to the story through his own life and family. "It seemed as if everything that had happened to me in my life had prepared me for this moment, to read this, and, without being terribly arrogant, to be in it," says the actor. "I was able to see my grandparents’ life through this experience, because they’ve become an extension of this. You’re able to connect the journey together, the journey that begins for a people as they attempt to become whole."

Oprah Winfrey observes, "Paul D’s arrival is the opening of Sethe’s heart to the possibility of hoping. How do you learn to love, when you’ve had so little of it yourself?"

Adds Glover, "The love that Paul D has for Sethe is a kind of redemptive love. It becomes even more heroic, that these two people have known each other in the ugliness and sordidness of what they’ve experienced. They have three choices: death, insanity, or survival; finding a way to bridge the insanity into some new world."

In stark contrast to Sethe’s warming to Paul D, her daughter Denver is painfully disappointed that this man is not her long-awaited father, Halle. Denver has suffered deeply from her mother’s choices, to the point where her isolation from the community has made her unwilling to leave the confines of their yard.

Demme says, "The moment Kimberly Elise walked into our first meeting, a chill ran up my spine. She had the part before she even sat down."

In her first reading of the script, actress Kimberly Elise understood Denver instantly. About her character, she says, "Her evolution is magnificent. The qualities and secrets that are calling Denver weren’t clearly apparent on paper, but I knew that they were underneath. That was one of the challenges that I saw in the character, that she was so internalized. Her magic comes from within."

Demme saw her character as an important link between the past and future. He explains, "‘Beloved’ is, enormously, the story of Denver. She is a member of the first generation with an the ability to take one strong step away from the horrendous psychological and social reality of slavery, towards the possibility of a better, though still tremendously difficult and challenging future."

The film’s major catalyst, the character of Beloved, also gave the filmmakers a casting challenge. Demme credits casting director Howard Feuer with identifying Thandie Newton to play the almost feral being who "shines" with adoration for Sethe, and who creates conflict between Sethe, Denver and Paul D. Newton had given notable performances in the period dramas "Jefferson in Paris," in which she played Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings, and "The Journey of August King."

Newton, who was born in London, describes how fate brought "Beloved" into her life, more than once. "About six years ago," she says, "a friend gave me the book, because my name ‘Thandiwe’ is Zulu for ‘Beloved.’ The book changed my perception of things, not only in the way I look at people, but history as well. When I read the script, I thought it harnessed so many of the book’s passions and emotions."

Newton surprised and pleased Demme at the first cast read-through of the script. He says, "Usually, you’re there simply to read the words, but she had this incredible, subtle body language. Just the way she sat there with her neck kind of bent and her head inclined slightly forward to one shoulder. I was mesmerized by the vision of what she would physically bring to the part."

Newton’s daring characterization would test her resilience as an actor. She says, "In order to do justice to a role like this, you have to go all the way. Playing Beloved meant that day after day, I had to expose so much of myself in a way that was sometimes undignified, deeply unflattering and even viciously cruel. You have to use your own resources, and discover what you potentially can be capable of."

Newton gleaned an invaluable observation about her role from Toni Morrison. "She said something to me which I’ve carried around in my head when I’ve been desperately trying to understand the person I’m playing. She said, ‘Beloved is the You in you.’ She is the bit in you that you cannot betray. She is someone who lives for the moment, and with that comes a kind of joy that we can’t imagine. She has no affectations because of her naiveté and vulnerability, and she pulls Sethe along with it."

Renowned stage and screen actress Beah Richards joined the distinguished cast in the role of family matriarch Baby Suggs, a former slave who received the ultimate gift of having her freedom bought for her by her son Halle. Highly esteemed by her acting peers, Richards earned a Tony Award nomination for her role in James Baldwin’s "Amen Corner," and an Academy Award® nomination for "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?"

Baby Suggs was a character with whom Richards was readily familiar. "I think I’ve known about a dozen Baby Suggs in my lifetime," says the actress. "I’m from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and women like her are legion in my neck of the woods. Baby Suggs was right down my alley."

The character of Baby Suggs, a slave turned holy woman who is the spiritual light of her community, is a strong presence which permeates the film. Her enraptured sermons are delivered in a clearing in the woods.

Richards says, "When I first read the script, I thought that speech was the message to this generation for the 21st century, that you must love yourself. I don’t think we really know how to love ourselves. She’s saying, see yourself as you are, and love that. And that is your salvation."

Growing up in the segregated South, Richards took special pride in being able to reinforce this idea. "I don’t know how many lynchings I heard of, how many days of humiliation I knew in Mississippi. Every time they attacked me, my mother would say, ‘Oh no, you don’t! You keep your head up!’ That’s why that scene took me to such a place, because I’d been there so often with my mother."

Jonathan Demme realized that a cinematic work must define its own vision, saying "Even as we were all determined to honor Ms. Morrison’s novel to the deepest degree possible, we also understood that the movie had to achieve a life all its own. We knew that we didn’t want to fall into the reverential trap of just kind of worshipping at the altar of a book we revered and adored. Any adaptation must aspire to taking flight and creating its own identity."

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