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Not all live happily ever after

The film "Beloved" (1998), which cost $75 million and has grossed only about $22 million, proves that mainstream audiences will not support a serious film on black themes. Or so the movie industry pundits conclude.

There is much head-shaking over the film's failure at the box office. The successful African-American TV producer Deborah Pratt ("The Net") told me this week that in the current climate it is almost impossible to get an ambitious black-themed movie financed at a major studio.

I believe her. But I don't believe "Beloved" failed because mainstream audiences rejected a serious black film. I believe audiences, black and white, rejected a depressing film they did not understand.

Imagine if "Schindler's List" had been about a Holocaust survivor who killed her infant daughter to spare her from the gas chambers. That the daughter's adult ghost returned years later in the flesh. And that the story was told in complex flashbacks, so that some viewers never did understand that the dead child and the adult visitor were the same person. That film would have fared no better with audiences than "Beloved."

I admired "Beloved." It is a good, powerful movie. But I've spoken with many people who were confused and depressed by it. "Who are these kinds of movies supposed to appeal to anyway?" wrote Sun-Times columnist Mary A. Mitchell. " 'Beloved' gives us nothing to celebrate and everything to mourn."

The lesson is one Hollywood has known for decades: Mass audiences want happy endings. It was the genius of Steven Spielberg to enter the horror of the Holocaust and emerge from it with a story that contained heroism, triumph and not one but two happy endings. TV's "Roots" celebrated endurance and found triumph at the end of its story.

I am at the Hawaii Film Festival, where the other night we saw a Chinese film that ended with a double suicide. I had an hour between movies, and darted into a nearby Korean noodle shop. Other moviegoers had the same idea, and because the cafe was so small we were all soon talking about the film.

"I hated it," one jolly Chinese-American woman told me. Her three friends nodded in agreement. "Not once have I seen a Chinese film that was happy. I know they have a lot of troubles over there - but sometimes they must have a good day!"

The other customers laughed in agreement. And I thought: Ordinary people buy tickets in order to have more entertaining things happen to them in the theater than might happen outside.

That describes several recent non-exploitation black-oriented films that have returned impressive profits. Consider "Soul Food," "Love Jones," "Waiting To Exhale," "The Bodyguard," "Amistad" and "Once Upon A Time . . . When We Were Colored." How many people know that the top-grossing American independent film of 1997 was Kasi Lemmons' "Eve's Bayou," a serious film without a single white character? It outgrossed all those independent films about young white guys on the make, sitting around in diners and smoking cigars.

Maya Angelou's "Down in the Delta," starring Alfre Woodard, was an audience favorite at the Toronto film festival and is likely to do well when it opens at Christmas.

Hollywood executives survive by trying to do exactly what worked for someone else. Therefore, if "Beloved" has failed, black films are out. They don't blame the film, but the genre. I have no doubt that eventually there will be a film about slavery that will "cross over" and make enormous profits at the box office. And I can promise you this: It will have a happy ending.

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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