Related post: Banned books in ‘Beautiful Creatures’
The 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures — not to be confused with the 2000 British film of the same title, which starred Rachel Weisz — is an adaptation of the 2009 YA novel written by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Richard LaGravenese, an American of Italian descent, both adapted the novel for the screen and directed the film. I first checked a DVD of this movie out from my library a few years ago, but the DVD was so scratched that I couldn’t finish the film or follow the plot very well, since the DVD kept getting stuck or skipping past entire scenes. I had a vague idea that Viola Davis played a librarian, but I couldn’t determine the extent of her role. Therefore, when I saw this movie come up in my local public library’s Hoopla streaming service recently, I pounced on the chance to rewatch it.
Here’s the description from Hoopla:
“Based on the New York Times best-selling young adult novel, this hauntingly intense coming-of-age story about two teenage star-crossed lovers in a small South Carolina town who uncover dark secrets about their families, their history and their town has been adapted by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King).”
And here’s the trailer:
My initial thoughts after finally being able to watch the movie all the way through? It is a frustratingly disappointing film, especially as you can see the level of talent involved and how it could have been so much better than the film ended up being. It really seems to be trying SO hard — too hard — to be an epic love story and build a foundation for the rest of the Caster Chronicles series. For me, the two leads — Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate and Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes — were just not compelling enough to carry the film, which was promoted as a “supernatural love story.” Ehrenreich seemed to be over-acting, while Englert seemed to be going for mysterious but landed on sullen. Also, having grown up in the American South myself (in the eastern side of Texas, which has a different kind of accent from other parts of Texas, let alone other parts of the South!), it grates on my nerves when each actor speaks with a different kind of Southern accent.
Viola Davis, who gets 4th billing in the cast list, does indeed play a librarian — and a reel librarian of color, as Davis is a Black American actress — and her role as Amma is VERY significant to this movie’s plot. Viola Davis always elevates each and every movie she chooses to invest her time and energy in, and in my opinion, she is far and away the best thing in this movie. Essentially, she is the only reason I would recommend watching Beautiful Creatures (2013), so I’m going to focus on her role in this post. Yes, I am biased in my love of Viola Davis, as well as in my love for librarians. #NoRegrets
There is no possible way I can adequately explain all the details and different relationships and characters relating to this book and the series. To get the gist and familiarize yourself with the main characters, I recommend visiting the write-ups on Wikipedia about the book and the movie version. And to delve into Amma’s reel librarian role, which is integrated throughout the entire film from beginning to end, I have to reveal major plot secrets.
You have been alerted to major spoilers. Let’s continue, shall we? 😉
A reel librarian’s role change
I have not read the original source novel, so I was unfamiliar with the world and characters of this series. In my prior post, I mentioned that Viola Davis’s role as Amma had been changed from a maid to a librarian, but it’s more complicated than that! It’s actually a merging of two different characters from the book:
- Amarie “Amma” Treadeau: A grandmotherly figure to Ethan, as she was Ethan’s nanny and the family’s cook and maid, as well as a Seer who can communicate with her ancestors
- Marian Ashcroft: The public librarian librarian (and librarian of the secret Caster libraries), as well as the best friend of Ethan’s late mother
The cinematic history of Black actors playing maids and other domestic servants is really complicated and sensitive, because it connects to and reflects the very real history of slavery in the U.S. and the painfully enduring effects of systemic racism. This is a subject for a book (e.g. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation by Greg Garrett, 2020), but below are quotes from two Oscar-winning Black actresses that demonstrate the differences (and progression?) of perspectives on this issue this past century.
- Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, faced criticism from the Black community, including the NAACP, for playing servant roles. McDaniel reportedly responded, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one” (as qtd. in Garrett, p. 53).
- Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2016 for her role as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences. After starring in 2011’s The Help in the Oscar-nominated role of Aibileen Clark, Viola Davis had “no intention of playing a domestic worker ever again” (Johnson). In a 2013 interview, Davis said she “was glad that the maid aspect of Amma was dropped from the film adaption.” Davis went on to say, “This is a total re-imagining of the character, and I like it. I’m going to be confident and bold and say I like it because […] this is 2013, and I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids. I think that that needs to be explored” (Ford).
Atypical reel librarian
When I initially watch a film to analyze it for its portrayal of librarian(s), I always begin by jotting down notes as scenes unfold in chronological order (with a lot of pausing to get quotes correctly written down). That way, I get a sense of how important the librarian role is to the film as the plot progresses. And I often continue this basic structure in my analysis posts, where I detail each major scene with a librarian or library setting, and then sum up the purpose of the reel librarian role at the end. But that structure did not seem to make sense when I thought about how to put together this post. First of all, Amma is onscreen throughout the film in dozens of scenes. But most significantly, Viola Davis’s portrayal of Amma transcends easy characterization, as she is so multi-layered. As written, it makes sense that Amma is a more complicated character, as two characters in the book were merged together in this cinematic role. But Davis infuses Amma with much more depth; she has shared in several interviews that she did a lot of research about Black history and narratives for this role, and “Even if you didn’t see so much of it, it informed me, in a way” (Radish).
I argue that Amma’s role in this film is much more than that of an Information Provider character type. We are treated to so many sides to Amma’s character in this film that I believe this role falls into the Atypical character category, a(n imperfect) classification I use to denote portrayals that do not conform to type, i.e. characters with enough screen time to allow viewers to witness more fully rounded characterizations and glimpses of their personal life. Therefore, in this post, I will delve into Amma’s character and purpose through the different sides of her personality that we get to witness in this film.
Amma’s nurturing side
The first facet of Amma’s personality we see is her nurturing, maternal figure side. This makes sense, as it seems that Amma’s primary role in the source novel is to be a surrogate mother to Ethan, whose biological mother has passed away. In the film, she also shares that she promised Ethan’s mother that she would take care of him, and more importantly, that she wants to.
At 4 minutes into the film, we get our first visual introduction to Amma, as she walks into Ethan’s house and refills the refrigerator with groceries. She asks him, “Is that what we’re wearing our first day of school?” while bending down to kiss Ethan on the top of his head. She asks after his father; we never actually see Ethan’s father, who seems to have retreated from the world after his wife’s death. (Is this an early signifier of White privilege, that a White man is able to hide from the world and his responsibilities and trust that his wife’s friend, a Black woman, will take care of running his household and raising his son? Discuss.)
We also see how maternal Amma is to Lena. At 90 minutes into the film, Lena learns the disturbing truth of how to break the curse that’s been placed on her family for generations, and Amma pulls Lena in for a comforting embrace.
Amma: Lena, talk to me.
Lena: There’s only one way to break the curse. Genevieve [an ancestor] used the forbidden spell. To give life to the one she loved. To break the curse, the one that I love has to die.
Amma: Oh, God. What are you gonna do?
Lena [reflecting words Amma had said to her earlier]: I won’t hurt Ethan. Never. They’re only our words, Amma. They can’t explain everything. There are all kinds of ways someone you love can die.
In the next scene, we see the effects of Lena erasing Ethan’s memories of her and their love. Ethan wakes up to Amma, once again, refilling their refrigerator with groceries. As they talk, Amma realizes what Lena has done and that Ethan no longer remembers his relationship with Lena. This minute-long scene is a showcase for Davis’s acting skills. Her face freezes and then drops ever-so-slightly as we feel the devastation of her sadness, as well as Amma’s struggle to maintain her composure for Ethan’s sake. And in the next scene, Amma takes Ethan to church, again trying to comfort his soul — as well as her own.
At the very end of the film, Amma nurtures both Ethan and Lena. At 1 hour and 53 minutes into the film, Ethan is on his way out of town to tour colleges, but he stops off at the library to say good-bye to Amma, who is sitting at her desk behind the Circulation counter.
Amma: You all set?
Ethan: Yep. We should be in New York by Thursday, if we make good time. We’re gonna go stay with Link’s cousin in Brooklyn.
Amma: Come here. [They hug.]
Ethan: I’ll call you as soon as I get in.
Amma: You call whenever you can.
On his way out of the library, Ethan sees Lena, who is seated at a table with a stack of books, and strikes up a conversation about the poet Charles Bukowski that mirrors another conversation they had at the beginning of the movie — only it’s obvious that Ethan still doesn’t remember their past relationship. After Ethan leaves, Amma comes over and places a consoling hand on Lena’s shoulder. She then walks over to the front door and turns over the Closed sign, to provide them some privacy.
Amma’s protective/secretive side
Amma also is privy to secrets about the past, and she tries to protect and shield Ethan from knowledge that she feels could harm him.
For example, at 30 minutes into the film, Ethan wakes from another nightmare/vision, and he goes downstairs to their living room. There, he sees Amma sifting through a bookcase along one wall.
Amma notices a locket in his hand — which he found with Lena — and her face hardens.
Amma: Where’d you get that?
Ethan: I don’ t know.
Amma: Don’t lie to me.
Ethan: What’s wrong?
Amma: You listen to me. You go and bury that in Greenbrier and forget you ever found it.
Ethan: I never said I was in Greenbrier, Amma.
This scene ends with no resolution, but we learn that Amma knows more than she’s telling!
At 71 minutes into the film, we return to that same living room, this time after Ethan and Lena have gone out on a movie date and experience a disturbing vision from the past that plays out on the movie screen.
Back at Ethan’s home, Macon, Lena’s uncle, and Amma explain the backstory about the family curse and that Lena’s mother, Sarafine, is not dead but instead practices dark magic as a Dark Caster. Lena gets angry at Macon for telling her that her mother, Sarafine, had been dead. Amma interjects, both figuratively and physically.
Amma [to Lena]: Lena! Our words, our language, cannot explain all that there is. There are other ways someone can die to us.
Amma [to Ethan]: Sarafine’s using you. Macon’s right.
When Macon then gets mad at Ethan, Amma stands between them, in order to literally protect Ethan.
Amma’s no-nonsense side
I love that Amma also gets to show her no-nonsense side! She may be nurturing and protective, but she is no pushover. She does not suffer fools. In her calm, self-assured, no-nonsense way, she demands personal respect. Every time she calls out others on their disrespect, they immediately back down and apologize.
One example comes at 30 minutes into the film, at the beginning of that scene I first described above when Ethan wakes up and finds Amma shuffling their shelves of books.
Ethan: Oh Amma, what are you doing?
Amma: I’m looking for some books your mother had. I have to return them to the library.
Ethan then shouts at her, asking how he got back home. Amma blinks, and then calls him out.
Amma: Why are you shouting?
Ethan: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma in her role as Seer. Macon joins her in her ritual to call upon her ancestors.
Amma: Macon, no danger better come to that boy [Ethan] because of your kind.
Macon: Yeah well, then you keep him on a leash!
Amma: What happened at Greenbrier?
Macon: I don’t know. Lena was hysterical. Boy was unconscious. I brought him home, called you. You’re the seer. You tell ME what happened!
Amma: This is the sacred place of my ancestors, you hear? You want some answers, you show me some respect.
Macon: Yes. I apologize.
At 77 minutes into the film, Ethan and Amma are back in the Caster Library (a secret underground library), while Lena reads a secret book of spells. Seemingly bored, Ethan touches a book, which shocks him with electricity. Without skipping a beat or even looking up, Amma calls him out.
Amma: What part of ‘you cannot touch it if you are not a caster’ don’t you understand?
Like I said, Amma does not suffer fools. #TeamLibrarian
Amma’s spiritual side
We witness Amma’s spiritual side through her role as Seer and her ability to communicate with her ancestors. From what I’ve read — again, I am not familiar myself with the book series — she can perform “Gullah magic,” and Gullah is the language of her ancestors. In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma preparing for the ritual, spreading out a blanket and taking things out of her large bag. Macon joins her, and we learn that Sarafine, Lena’s mother, is still around and causing trouble, and that Macon is trying to protect Lena.
First, we learn that Amma is receptive to dark Caster magic.
Amma: I felt something tonight. I’ve been feeling something every night since you brought that girl [Lena] here. […] So you bring darkness to this town. I can feel it like a hand twisting my insides.
Then we witness Amma’s ritual. She begins the ritual with offering of food to her ancestors.
Amma: Brought your favorites, Uncle Abner. Shrimp and grits. Fried oysters. And a coconut pie.
Macon: No wonder he’s no longer with us.
Amma: Pay no attention to him, Uncle.
Then, she takes off her outer layers of clothing, down to her tank top. It’s an intimate moment made even more intimate by seeing the scarred markings on her shoulders and back. (Does anyone recognize the style of markings? If so, please leave a comment and share!)
Amma: Uncle Abner, we are in need of your intercession. Along with Aunt Ida and Auntie May, I humbly call upon your spirits.
Macon: What are they saying?
Amma: Nothing yet.
Macon: Tell them they have to help us stop Sarafine.
Amma: Some things cannot be stopped.
During this scene, she also admonishes Macon and alludes to how he — the leader of Caster families who were former slave owners — has a fraught history with her ancestors, who were former slaves.
Amma: You know, it wouldn’t break your face to ask for some help instead of expecting it, like your family’s been doing with mine for too many years. Now, don’t you roll your eyes at me.
Amma calls to “Uncle Abner” in this scene, but I wondered how many generations of her ancestors she was calling to. I wasn’t the only one who wondered this! Here is an excerpt about this scene from a 2013 interview with BlackTree TV and reporter Jamaal Finkley.
Jamaal Finkley: One of the lines I found interesting is when you were in this scene with Jeremy Irons, and you’re talking about your ancestors. Do you think as a community, as a film community, that we do enough to celebrate our ancestors? I’m not sure if you was referring to the Gullah people or just slaves in general and that aspect, but in that scene, do you think that we could do more as an entertainment community to celebrate those people that are our ancestors?
Viola Davis: As Black people? […] Absolutely. When I did this role, one of the things I really researched was the past. Who we [Black people] were in the Civil War, who we were before we even came into America, and I went back to the Yoruba tribe. Actually read a memoir from a man who was born and raised on the plantation I was born on, Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, and I think those stories are so interesting, they’re so complicated. The human beings, the people that we were in the past, the people that we are now, is interesting.
You can view the rest of this interview with BlackTree TV below.
The spiritual side of Amma feels intrinsic to her character, and it is clear that Viola Davis took great care to root that spiritual side of her character in the traditions and stories of African and Black American culture.
Amma’s professional side
The final side we get to see of Amma is her professional side as a librarian. Although we learned early on that Amma is a librarian — Ethan reveals this 26 minutes into the film, when he shares that “maybe I’ll take over the library from Amma” — we do not actually SEE Amma in a library until the 80-minute marker, over halfway through the 124-minute movie. I kind of like that we get to see other facets of Amma’s character before we see her in her professional library setting. And we soon get double the library scenes!
After Sarafine reveals herself to Ethan — one minor spoiler I will not completely reveal — Ethan takes Lena to the Gatlin Public Library. Through the front windows, we can spy Amma under a “Circulation Desk” sign. Amma comes to the front door, where we can also see the library’s open hours.
Ethan: Amma, we need your help.
Amma: Why come to me?
Lena: The way you talked about the locket, about the curse. Excuse me, Miss Amma, but I think you know more than you’re saying.
Ethan: Please, Amma.
Amma: This isn’t the place you’re gonna find anything you need. Meet me in the back.
They go down to the basement, where she opens a steel door. She opens a panel, which reveals an intricate lock, and she has a key. She then shares with them the secret Caster library and its history.
Ethan: This must run under the whole town.
Amma: The whole country. Gatlin is like the capital of Caster America. It used to be under Washington, D.C., until Nancy Reagan made them move. She was the only mortal they were ever scared of.
They go down a flight of stairs to a large room with books along the back wall and tables. Amma then reveals her role as Keeper of the Caster Library.
Ethan: Amma, why didn’t you tell us about this?
Amma: A Keeper has to be asked.
Lena: A Keeper, as in you’re a …
Amma: The Caster Library has been the responsibility of seers like me for generations. [She glides her hand along a book podium.] Something I had no choice about either, by the way. And these books hold the histories of the casters from around the world, the laws that keep balance between light and dark.
Ethan reaches out to touch a book. Amma educates him about manners (“Hey! Get away from that!“), and continues to educate us all about forbidden spells.
Amma: Macon comes here every day and reads every book he can for the forbidden spell.
Lena: He found nothing?
Amma: But you can do it. God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves. Close your eyes. See with your mind what you’re looking for, as if you’ve already found it.
Another door opens and reveals a room containing a locked book on a pedestal. Once again, Viola Davis’s acting skills are on display, as she reveals a tiny, satisfied smile, as if to show to the viewer that Lena has passed a secret test.
Amma: I knew it. Book of Moons. It’s the most powerful book of the Otherworld. It’s as alive as you or me. Strongest of every spell, good and bad.
Lena: Did Macon look through it?
Amma: No, he couldn’t. The book chooses who reads it. Its law is “like attracts like.” […] It won’t reveal itself so easy. A curse this dark takes its time showing itself. The dark will test you.
Amma leads Ethan away, and Lena stays with the book, which slowly reveals itself to her. Time for a research and reading montage!
It’s a treat that we get to see Amma be a professional in not one, but TWO, libraries. We see her professional work space in the public library, and we get to see her work with scrolls and old tomes in the Caster library. In the scene where she chides Ethan for touching a book even though he’s not a caster, she continues to impart wisdom as Ethan asks her questions.
Ethan: Were there casters in the Civil War?
Amma: Casters have been fighting alongside mortals for centuries, every war, every side. Just ‘cause they’re supernatural don’t make them any smarter.
Ethan: You know, what I can’t figure, is you go to church every Sunday? How do you believe in all this and still believe in God?
Amma: God created all things, didn’t he? It’s only men that go and decide which ones are mistakes.
It’s clear Amma takes pride in her role as Keeper. I just can’t help thinking how difficult it must be for her to compartmentalize her dual roles as librarian. One of those roles is very public, while she has to keep secret her other role as the Keeper of the Caster library.
And that title, “Keeper” is revealing, isn’t it? It reinforces the (stereotypical) role of librarians as literal gatekeepers, shielding resources and knowledge from anyone until they are deemed worthy. And although Amma is proud of her role as Keeper, it is also clear that she works within a system that she is unable to change. (Is this yet another glimpse into her identity as a Black woman working within an oppressive and rigid system? Discuss.)
Amma’s style roots
I’ve been sharing screenshots of Amma throughout this post, and hopefully, you’ve been enjoying her AMAZING style. I love that her hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry all reflect her Black and African identity and culture. Amma comes across as very rooted in her personal identity, and that her culture — and her personal expression of that culture — help ground her. She experiments with patterns and colors, and her jewelry is always front-and-center. Amma is no wallflower reel librarian. As a Black woman in a South Carolina town that seems mostly full of White people (except at church), there’s no way she could visually blend in, even if she wanted to. And it’s clear she doesn’t want to blend in; rather, she seems to radiate joy and self-confidence in her personal appearance. I found myself looking for Amma in every scene, eagerly anticipating what amazing jewelry or pattern-mixing combination she would wear next. I will definitely have to update my “stylish reel librarians” posts, as Amma needs to be at the top of the list!
I also looked for interviews and info about the costume design choices. In this EW.com article, I learned that costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who is Jewish, designed all the costumes and jewelry in the film. Here’s what he shared about designing Amma’s memorable style:
“Amma is a very spiritual person, so we decided that her African roots are seen in her spiritual longings and reflected in her wardrobe. There’s a good deal of color and the jewelry that she wears is very heavy and iconic,” says Kurland, who notes that most of the jewelry worn by Davis’ character jewelry is from a collection of pieces that he created. “The other pieces are from places like Morocco, Africa and Tibet. There’s a certain spirituality that I wanted to infuse into her look while also showing that she’s a woman of style.”Jeffrey Kurland, “‘Beautiful Creatures’ costume designer on dressing the characters in the supernatural flick,” EW.com, 2013
Viola Davis also enjoyed rocking her natural hair texture in the role of Amma:
RADISH: Was it liberating not to have to wear a wig for this character?
DAVIS: Yes, absolutely!“Viola Davis Talks BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, What She Discovered During Her Research, PRISONERS, ENDER’S GAME, and More,” Collider.com, 2013
However, the movie’s lighting was so dim most of the time that I couldn’t properly see what Amma was wearing! I found the lighting too dark overall — I guess they were going for moody? — and I’ve read before about how many cinematographers do not get properly trained on the best ways to light Black skin. I don’t know if that’s the case here — the film’s cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, is an award-winning French cinematographer who has worked with many directors, including with Denzel Washington when he directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) — but I thought that the lighting choices in Beautiful Creatures did not serve to highlight Viola Davis and her inner (and outer) luminosity.
To sum up, although I did not particularly like the film overall, I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own. There’s so much to unpack in this role and in Davis’s performance that I’m sure I have only scratched the surface. Have you also seen Beautiful Creatures (2013)? What did you think of the dual-librarian role of Amma? Have you read the original source novel or series? Please leave a comment and share!
- Beautiful Creatures. Dir. Richard LaGravenese. Perf. Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emma Thompson. Summit, 2013. Based on the 2009 novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
- “Beautiful Creatures (2013 film)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- “Beautiful Creatures (novel)” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- Finkley, Jamaal. “Viola Davis talks about honoring her history in Beautiful Creatures.” YouTube, uploaded by BlackTree TV, 12 Feb. 2013.
- Ford, Rebecca. “‘Beautiful Creatures’ Star Viola Davis on Why Her Character Isn’t a Maid in the Adaptation (Q&A).” The Hollywood Reporter, 12 Feb. 2013.
- Garrett, Greg. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. Oxford University Press, 2020.
- Johnson, Zack. “Viola Davis: I’ll Never Play a Maid Again.” US Weekly, 7 Feb. 2013.
- “Philippe Rousselot” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
- Radish, Christina. “Viola Davis Talks BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, What She Discovered During Her Research, PRISONERS, ENDER’S GAME, and More,” Collider.com, 11 Feb. 2013.
- Williams, Nakisha. “‘Beautiful Creatures’ costume designer on dressing the characters in the supernatural flick,” EW.com, 14 Feb. 2013.