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Winfrey confronts the strength and the spirits of 'Beloved'

After she finished reading Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, Oprah Winfrey said, "I called Toni and said to her, `You know, I loved this book - but do people tell you they have to keep going over it?' And she said, `That, my dear, is called reading.' "

When Winfrey decided she wanted to produce the movie "Beloved" (opening Friday) and play the lead, a former slave named Sethe, there was concern that audiences would be distracted because Sethe was the famous Oprah Winfrey. "When everyone was saying to me, `How are you gonna be able to lose yourself in this role?' " Winfrey said, "I was thinking, `That, my dear, is called acting.' "

Watching the film, one is of course aware that Oprah Winfrey (and Danny Glover, Thandie Newton and other actors) are on the screen. But there's no glitch because the performances and story have been so strongly joined by director Jonathan Demme that the actors simply melt into it.

"The studio did a test screening in San Francisco," Winfrey told me, "and in the audience comments nobody referred to me - which they saw as a positive. I guess people lost the Oprah factor immediately."

We were sitting in her office at Harpo Studios on the Near West Side, an office more like a sitting room with overstuffed sofas, understated art, and lots of flowers. She'd just finished taping two shows back-to-back, and plopped down in front of a big mug of designer coffee. I have been talking with Oprah in one way or another ever since I was once on her talk show in Baltimore, and one thing stays the same: her conversational style, confiding, informal, but direct. You sense why people open up to her on television and relate to her show. She's playing straight.

The day we talked, she had just turned down what certainly would have been the highest-rated show in her history, an interview with Monica Lewinsky. "I do not pay for interviews," she said, simply. "My producers were like, `How can you say no? It's the biggest interview of the year.' I said, `Watch me say no.' "

I tried to picture the Lewinsky interview, if Oprah had gone through with it, knowing Lewinsky would then own the tape. I couldn't. I don't think Winfrey could have finished the show. Her whole persona is about controlling her own destiny - owning herself. No wonder she was powerfully attracted by Beloved, which is about a woman who tastes 28 days of what freedom feels like and is willing to kill her daughter rather than see her taken back into slavery.

For years it seemed, however, that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel might not ever be filmed. Certainly Toni Morrison had no burning desire to see it on the screen. Winfrey was a voracious reader for years before she started Oprah's Book Club and became the most influential reader in America. Reading Beloved, she remembers, she was touched by the slave experience even more deeply than before. And she embarked on a 10-year process, through many screenplay drafts and several setbacks, to get the movie made.

The book and movie are both told in a series of interlocking flashbacks that piece together the anguished memories of Sethe, a woman who kills her daughter rather than see her be returned to the slave-owning plantation she had escaped. As the film opens, it is 1873 and the freed Sethe is living with another daughter, Denver (Kimberly Elise), in a frame house on the outskirts of Cincinnati. They are joined by Paul D (Danny Glover), a man she knew from the plantation. Her house is haunted by a poltergeist, and soon the ghost arrives in physical form: Beloved (Thandie Newton), a thin, spectral presence who walks and speaks oddly, as indeed she should, because she is a 2-year-old inhabiting an adult body.

"It is important to understand why a woman would be so driven by the slave experience that she could kill her own children," Winfrey told me. We were looking through a book of photographs and diary entries she made during the filming.

"Toni spoke to me of `that iron-willed, arrogant Sethe.' And I had trouble with the term `arrogant.' And Toni said, `When I tell you she's arrogant, believe it. She's arrogant.' Arrogant, in her unwavering confidence, without one moment of doubt, that the decision that she made to take the life of her children was the right decision."

Winfrey said the novel was inspired by the true story of a slave named Margaret Garner. "And the real Margaret Garner not only killed one child and attempted to kill all of them, but then was taken back for stealing property, was sold down river to New Orleans and jumped overboard again with another child. That child drowned and she was pulled back out of the water and sent South. And in the true story, she wasn't even tried for murder. She was tried for stealing property, because they weren't considered human.

"She just was so defiant and iron-willed that she would not be taken, under any circumstances. And what I came to understand is, that's what happens when you've known freedom. It's the fact that she experienced 28 days of freedom that drove her to that.

"In the process of making this movie, I went there. I said to Toni that I knew the stories but I never felt the stories. I got for the first time what every slave knew - that the beatings, the mistreatment by master, going to the fields, working hard, doesn't in any way come close to the spiritual and emotional explanation of what slavery is. It's the loss of self, the loss of your own humanity. It's not being able to have a will to choose."

In the film, there is a speech where Sethe talks of her 28 days of freedom. It was one of the hardest scenes in the movie for Winfrey, she said.

"I did four takes and I couldn't get through it. I was hysterical. The hardest line for me was when she says, `Look like when I got here I love my children more because as long as I knew we were in Kentucky they really weren't mine to love.'

"I had read the book, but in acting the scene I was going to the knowing place. What does that mean? It means that every time a slave woman or man went to the fields they came back home knowing that their children might not be there. If master decides he wants to sell 'em, they're gone. They're not yours; they don't belong to you.

"And another hard, hard line of dialogue to get through was what she said about freedom: `Wake up in the mornin' and decide for myself what to do with the day.' That line was life-transforming for me. It was the purest definition of freedom. But to say that line was hard, hard, hard. Until I was in the moment with Danny, I never thought that it would be that hard. Finally Jonathan Demme said to me, `We're gonna turn the camera around on Danny and let you come back and try again tomorrow.' I felt like a failure. I'm blowing it. But I really needed to come back because I was so emotional about it I had lost touch with Sethe. Because she just tells it; she just tells it. She's not all in it; she just tells it."

Demme also was helpful, Winfrey said, when her own emotions about the material threatened to overwhelm how Sethe would feel about it. After all, Sethe has lived this life. She has come to terms with it.

There is a scene where the unseen ghost hurls Sethe's dog against the wall. Winfrey says she first played it in an emotional way, rushing to the injured dog. "Then Jonathan had a conversation with me. He said, `I don't know how you're feeling about the dog hitting the wall, but I don't think she's gonna be surprised to see it. Do you?' And I realized she wouldn't be. And he goes on, `Because she's been in that house living with this ghost, and the ghost has done all kinds of unspeakable things. So I don't think she's gonna be shocked at all. I think she's gonna be resigned and sad that baby ghost just won't leave this house alone.' "

Winfrey got up and brought over two framed documents she had in her office. They were the bills from slave auctions held more than 150 years ago. There were first names in a column down the left-hand side, and then neatly written prices: $400, $275 . . .

On the set of "Beloved," she said, she used these documents to help her prepare for the day.

"I had these in my trailer. Before some scenes, I would light candles and say their names. These are ledgers from plantations. I would say their names and their ages and their prices and this one where they are listed along with the cows and how many plows and how many mules. I would try to call them in. Call them in with a sense of reverence, because I always thought that this was bigger than my own little self.

"The first meeting that I had with Jonathan Demme," she said, "he was concerned about how I was going to lose the Oprah persona, was going to play the character. And I said I didn't know if it could be acted as much as channeled. I felt like I had to open up and receive, as opposed to trying to go in and find."

I've read, I said, that when you wander in the woods of your farm in Indiana, you sometimes feel that there are slave spirits close to you.

"I do," she said, "but I'm reluctant to go too far with that, because once you start talking about spirits, that's open to weird interpretations. I haven't seen a spirit but I certainly have felt the presence of them in doing this film. Many, many, many times over."

And you went through this experience where they re-created the slave experience, they blindfolded you and put you through some of the same ordeals?

"Yes, in Maryland I went through all that. That's where I really touched the dark space. I originally wanted to do the exercises just as a matter of physicality. Like OK, what's it like to be barefoot in the woods and in the hot sun? I was gonna try to experience a part of the Underground Railroad for a couple of days. Sitting under a tree during that experience, though, I touched the dark, hollow, death-without-salvation place. `Oh, that's what it is,' I thought. `That's what it is.' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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