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Spirit of the Past

[whitespace] Beloved
Ken Regan

Ghost story: Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey star in the film version of Beloved.

Opal Palmer Adisa discusses 'Beloved'

By David Templeton


For over five years, writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. His guests have included Joan Baez, John Wesley Harding, Walter Mosley, Cynthia Heimel, and Allan Dershowitz. Today, he meets the highly regarded Jamaican author and educator Opal Palmer Adisa to discuss the cinematic adaptation of Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning ghost story, Beloved.

I COME FROM A CULTURE, from Jamaica, where ghosts are real," explains Opal Palmer Adisa. "In my culture--in fact, in many antecedent black cultures--for one to be visited by one's ancestors is not a far-fetched thing at all. So, to a black person, Beloved will be very credible."

I am speaking with Adisa over lunch at a tiny Mediterranean cafe in San Francisco--but I am clearly not the only one listening to her. All around us, people have ceased their conversations, turning their eyes to our table and their ears to Adisa's soft-spoken words; the cafe owner, even, seems to be always hovering within earshot. At one point, he turns down the boisterous, piped-in music, apparently to reduce its competition with Adisa's voice--a mellifluous blend of lilting Jamaican cadence and the commanding tones of a poet and teacher skilled at holding people's attention.

Adisa is the author of several books, including a magical, enthusiastically reviewed first novel, It Begins with Tears (1997)--a story of love and family in which spirits, sure enough, play a potent part--and the award-winning poetry collection Tamarind and Mango Women (1993). A popular lecturer and storyteller, Adisa teaches at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she chairs the Ethnic Studies/Cultural Diversity program. She has long been a champion of Toni Morrison's Beloved; first released 11 years ago, the story of Sethe--an escaped slave who is literally haunted by her past--went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize. It has now been turned into a film by Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs), and is produced by and stars Oprah Winfrey.

Though Adisa found a few things to quibble with in the film--including the somewhat demonic depiction of Beloved, the young woman who may or may not be the grown-up ghost of Sethe's long-dead child--she nevertheless found it to be an enormously moving film. "It was powerful to me. I want to see it again," she says, with a nod. And if the filmmakers allowed a bit too much of The Exorcist to seep into Morrison's post-Civil War epic, well, "That's Hollywood," she shrugs.

"In Jamaican culture, the spirits act as messengers. They are our guides," she explains, returning to the subject of ghosts (and if she is aware of the attention her words are attracting, she does not reveal it). "If you are on a path that they feel you shouldn't be on, that's not good for you, the spirits are going to 'dream you,' as my mother would say. She'd wake up one morning and say, 'Oh, my mother dreamt me last night,' and that was her mother, who was dead since she was 10, who was dreaming her and telling her something that she needed to know, either about herself or about one of us kids."

"But this subject is not just about being visited by your dead child," she points out. "It's about slavery, which many people, black and white, don't want to deal with, don't want to think about. I can only speak for me, but I was very conscious, as I was watching Beloved, of being a black person, with slavery as part of my heritage in the New World. And what I saw were some of the things we've lost, the way in which we've lost a sense of connectedness to each other, a sense of affinity with the land. The film, with its scenes of nature, or the season's passing, seemed very much rooted in the earth to me, in a way that I think the majority of blacks are now rooted in urbanization."

ADISA thinks of Baby Suggs (played by Beah Richards), the rural Ohio preacher woman whose informal woodland church services drew hundreds of former slaves eager for the healing power of her words.

"When Baby Suggs stands there on that rock and says, 'Love your hands,' and for the movie to end with her saying, 'Love the beat of your heart,' that was so powerful to me. That was, like ... God! I want black people to hear that."

"To me the greatest tragedy of slavery is that it's something that we don't talk about, because we don't understand what we lost as a result of surviving it. As a people. We've lost a great part of our humanity, of our own selves. I really believe that. We lost the sense that our hands, or our feet, the beat of our heart, our entire being was valuable. That we are valuable."

Adisa mentions the Monument Project. Organized out of Washington, D.C., the project aims to establish the first national monument to those who lived and died as American slaves. It is set to be unveiled next July.

"I've been saying for years," Adisa goes on, "that part of the problem with black people, diasporically, is that we have no monument for slavery. Until we pay homage to the sacrifice of the slaves, then we are forever going to be in a state of confusion. I truly believe that. I don't think we as a people have ever dealt with the onslaught of slavery. We have yet to begin to heal from it. We've just buried that part of ourselves.

"The thing that most black people don't want to hear is that, in a sense, we accepted slavery. We did not decide, like the Caribs in the Caribbean, that we would rather be annihilated as a people than become anyone's slaves. For the most part, we took another route. The majority of us decided that it was better to be slaves--to go on living and see what was around the bend. And so we have to wrestle with it, having made that decision--and having survived it."

"And Sethe, in taking Beloved into her house, allows us to do that," she smiles, brightly. "She demonstrates for each of us, individually, as black people, to look at the decisions we have made--and that we continue to make--in terms of where we are, who we are, what we do, and what we don't do."

"And this film reminds us, too," she adds, her words gliding to a close, "that as we do that, we must love ourselves. We must love the beat of our own hearts."

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From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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