Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: February is Black History Month, so we’re looking back on great performances by Black actors that the Academy Awards ignored.
In 1998, Jonathan Demme was on an Oscar hot streak, especially when it came to actors. His most recent dramatic feature, Philadelphia (1993), had given Tom Hanks the first of two consecutive Best Actor statuettes. Prior to that, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) took home Best Actor and Best Actress, along with Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. Even the relatively lightweight Married To The Mob (1988) had secured a Supporting Actor nomination for Dean Stockwell. And there was no reason to think that was about to change, since Demme’s latest project was as prestigious as they come: a three-hour adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, starring Oprah Winfrey—in her first major big-screen role since receiving an Oscar nomination for 1985’s The Color Purple—as well as perpetually overlooked titan Danny Glover and exciting young talent Thandie Newton. AMPAS’ history with recognizing Black actors wasn’t stellar, but surely voters couldn’t ignore a pedigree like this, especially with a (white) Academy favorite at the helm.
They could and did. Beloved garnered respectful but not exactly glowing reviews (at a time when there were few professional film critics of color), tanked at the box office, and wound up receiving just a single Oscar nomination, for Colleen Atwood’s costume design. Watch it today, however, and you’ll wonder how it’s possible that nobody saw fit to honor one of that year’s most quietly astonishing performances, given by the least famous (today, at least) of its four stars. Kimberly Elise plays Denver, the 18-year-old daughter of former slave Sethe (Winfrey); the year is 1873, and these two women have found a measure of peace, if you ignore the poltergeist that haunts their ramshackle house outside of Cincinnati. “What kind of evil you got in here?” asks a horrified Paul D (Glover), the first time he sets foot inside. “It ain’t evil,” Sethe replies. “Just sad.” Shortly thereafter, a mysterious, barely ambulatory young woman (Newton) shows up outside, croaking “Beloved” when asked her name. The makeshift family—Sethe and Paul D, who’d been enslaved together in Kentucky, become lovers—takes Beloved in, unaware of the secret she harbors.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Denver seems to immediately, instinctively know who Beloved is, rushing to her aid when she appears and insisting that this exceedingly feeble and bizarrely childlike woman is not sick. And while Winfrey and (especially) Newton have much more demonstrative and traditionally award-grabbing roles, it’s Elise’s largely silent intensity throughout that holds Beloved together. Denver’s simultaneously fearful and giddy reaction to the poltergeist’s attack on Paul D, right at the beginning of the movie, sets the tone for a character who symbolically straddles the line between an inescapably nightmarish past and a tentatively hopeful future. Elise was at least 30 years old at the time, but she perfectly embodies a confused, wary teenager, and subtly conveys everything from crippling agoraphobia to growing self-determination with just her gaze and her body language, radiating raw emotion from dim corners of the frame without actively stealing focus.
Morrison’s novel is such a crazily harrowing portrait of slavery’s lingering trauma that no filmmaker might have been able to do it full justice. Demme did shepherd yet another Oscar-worthy turn, though, even if nobody noticed.