Some films can be considered food for thought. But Beloved, the recent film produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison should be considered the equivalent of a huge feast.
Yet for all the talk of Oscar nominations, according to the manager of the Wilma Theatre where the film is playing, the number of Missoulians seeing Beloved has been disappointingly low. And while it's true that this effort has received mixed reviews, at least one scholar believes that viewing such a film-about the scars left by slavery-would go along way in healing racial rifts across the United States.
Still, in most towns in Montana, Beloved has yet to open and it's entirely possible it never will.
The absence and relatively short runs of films that focus on the lives of minorities and African Americans, in particular, has been criticized by more than one Montanan, including Flathead-based, Independent movie reviewer Nick Davis.
And there seem to be no easy answers when it comes to why such movies don't play in the Big Sky-except for the rarely uttered opinion that since few African Americans live here, theater managers tend to view some films as lacking a local audience.
Tom Hines, manager of the Anderson Theater Company in Kalispell, acknowledges it's often not economically viable to open a film that clearly won't do well at the box office. He says he makes his decisions based on the past performance of similar films, and sometimes art just loses out to commerce.
"It's not an easy question," Hines explains of his deliberations over Beloved. "We took a look at what we did with Amistad, Glory and Waiting to Exhale and decided we couldn't even make our money back on the cost to buy a print of Beloved."
Hines stops short of saying that his theater passsed on Beloved because of the perception that the region has a predominantly white population. "I can't speak for the race consciousness of Kalispell. But my feeling is, subconsciously, people are not interested.
"For the most part, northwest Montanans are-just like Nick Davis said-very whitebread."
Chuck Viane, senior vice president of Buena Vista, the company distributing Beloved, says decisions over which movies will show where is made film by film and theater by theater. He says he takes into account a number of different variables, including the time of year the release is planned for, the size of a town and the film's "playability."
"For each film we develop what we think are the right markets and what it takes to support it. It's not simply a black and white issue," Viane says.
For Beloved, he says corporate heads spent a lot of time deciding which locations in the United States the film would open in. After allowing it to "play out," he says, they decided whether to make additional prints. "We wanted to see if it became another Dances With Wolves," Viane says.
Edward Sanford, director of the University of Montana's African-American Studies department, offers a more complicated reasoning behind the lack of black faces on movie screens in Montana.
Especially when it comes to films dealing with slavery and racism, Sanford says, the lack of interest may stem from fundamental flaws in the nation's educational system. Last Thursday, November 5, at a special showing of Beloved Sanford discussed the film with a few hundred audience members, and tried to address questions about the portrayal of slavery in the antebellum South and its lingering effects on contemporary society.
Sanford called slavery a "peculiar institution" that dehumanized a segment of the American population for generations. "This is a relatively young country," Sanford told the audience. "We lived with slavery longer than we have lived without it. We still have racism and discrimination left over from that mind-set."
Sanford believes that Americans aren't taught about slavery with any depth in school; they simply learn that the institution existed during an unfortunate time in the nation's history. He says most people have little understanding of how deeply that trauma affected peopl. The effect, he says results in a lack of interest in movies that try to bring such a reality to life.
"I'd hate to think that people aren't seeing Beloved because there is no large African-American population here. I think it's more a lack of awareness and understanding of the time period," Sanford says.
According to Jennifer Blumberg, manager of the Wilma, attendance for Beloved has been growing since the film opened three weeks ago. Blumberg attributes this sleeper effect to word-of-mouth passed from audience members to their friends and family. "Any movie not made to appeal to the masses doesn't draw a big crowd," she says.
As a point in contrast, Blumberg points to the unlikely success of Smoke Signals, the story of two members of the Coeur d'Alene tribe who take a road trip to Arizona and back, which opened at the New Crystal over two months ago and currently plays at the Wilma.
Sanford surmises the success of Smoke Signals is partially the result of a familiarity people have with tribal culture in Montana. "There's a larger Native American population here," he says, "and people know about powwows and cultural events. They drive through the Flathead and see it's close to home and have a curiosity. If you threw Smoke Signals into Harlem, people might not go see it."