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Oprah Winfrey's "Beloved" wasn't too beloved at the box office

Slavery doesn't sell on big screen

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 03, 1998 3:18:15 PM EST

From Correspondent Michael Okwu

NEW YORK (CNN) -- One of Oprah Winfrey's many talents is the ability to persuade people and influence best-seller lists. Some say she turned her viewers into avid readers, and in the process made countless authors rich on royalties.

But Oprah ran into a wall when she tried to persuade moviegoers to consider the topic of slavery. Her latest movie, "Beloved," based on Toni Morrison's award-winning novel, has been a box office flop.

It's not the first time the box office and slavery have been a bad match.

"To this point, the few films that have focused on the issue of slavery have not performed well at the box office," says Martin Grove of the Hollywood Reporter.


Out of synch?

That concerned "Beloved" director Jonathan Demme early on.

"Sometimes it worries me if people think that this is a movie about slavery, or it's a movie that's going to challenge you on the level of how you feel about slavery that they're going to resist seeing it," said Demme.

And resist they did. After six weeks in theaters, Oprah's $55 million "Beloved" has barely earned $25 million.

"People don't tend to look at Oprah as just a black talk show host," says Cassandra Hayes, senior editor for Black Enterprise. "She cuts across all marks and all genres. So I think it was broadly marketed."

Still, even Oprah couldn't sell audiences on a slave story.

"These movies, many times, are not really in synch with the appetite of African-American consumers," says Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmaker Foundation. "So in that sense it doesn't surprise me that these movies don't work. Hollywood keeps giving us 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' when African-American consumers want 'Spartacus.'"

Stories about slavery tend to fare better on television (for example, "Mama Flora's Family") than in the theaters

Even Spielberg had troubles

Producer Debbie Allen and Steven Spielberg launched their slave ship epic, "Amistad," at a splashy Washington D.C. premiere last December.

President Clinton saw it, but most regular folks didn't. Spielberg, who filled theaters with his Holocaust drama "Schindler's List," couldn't do the same with slave history.

Some say the movie theater is no place to teach people about one of the darkest chapters in American history.

"On TV, where you have the miniseries form which allows a long time to develop and deal with a story that's complicated, perhaps the material is better served by that form," says Grove.

"Mama Flora's Family" -- an adaptation of Alex Haley's post-slavery family chronicle -- scored CBS some of its highest ratings of the November sweeps period.

PBS debuted its new five-part documentary, "Africans in America," in October and counts it among its most successful fall projects.

Meanwhile on the big screen, analysts agree, the bleak history of slavery has a bleak future.

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