Civil Liberties

Their Eyes Were Watching Oprah

Oprah brings Zora Neale Hurston to the screen, but does she do her justice?
Those who have taken a black literature course or visited the black section of their favorite bookstore are very familiar with Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. After discovering Hurston's work in the 1970s, Alice Walker ignited a literary renaissance for Hurston and this book in particular spawned countless papers, two major biographies and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival now entering its 17th year. So, ABC's Sunday broadcast of Oprah Winfrey Presents Their Eyes Were Watching God definitely has some high expectations to meet in the literary community. But those expectations do not always sync with those of the general community.

If you are unfamiliar with this landmark work or its creator, let me bring you up to speed. Hurston, as it is now believed, was born in Notasulga, Ala., (not in Eatonville, Fla., as her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road claims) in 1891. Eatonville, however, was where she spent the bulk of her childhood. She loved that it was an all-black town and credited that experience with her self-pride, which led her to dedicate herself to collecting Negro folklore. Those elements found their way into her creative work and though she published many books, Their Eyes Were Watching God remains her most popular.

For years, countless readers have bonded with the character of Janie Crawford, a motherless girl raised by her grandmother. As a teenager, Janie is married off to a much older, but financially-secure man. She, however, meets another man along the road who has big dreams and runs off with him to Eatonville. When he dies, she takes up with a much younger man and this experience helps her rediscover herself. This now classic novel depicts a black woman taking agency for her own life.

To bring this novel, published in 1937, to life, Oprah Winfrey, who has worked on this project for over a decade, enlisted Oscar winner Halle Berry. She also tapped Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, best known for Topdog/Underdog, to adapt the book into a script and Latina director Darnell Martin, best known for the 1994 film I Like It Like That, to direct it.

The film is visually stunning. It looks lush, Southern and rural. Additionally, Halle looks a lot like the Janie Crawford I envisioned when I read the work. Ruby Dee as Nanny, Janie's grandmother, is also fitting, especially since it is this character who is responsible for the novel's key revelation that "de nigger woman is de mule uh de world." Parks' adaptation is pretty faithful.

Although there are lesser known actors in the film such as Nikki Micheaux, whom most of us recognize as the woman tempting Kenny on Soul Food, Terrence Dashon Howard, Lorraine Toussaint and Ruben Santiago-Hudson also show up. It is Michael Ealy (Ricky from Barbershop) as Tea Cake, who will probably delight most female viewers. This, however, really is Halle's movie.

For the most part she's fine. The story is somewhat accelerated but entertaining, with Halle playing Janie from teenager to grown woman of 40. During most of the film, she strikes a very good balance between being delicate and strong. Even still Tea Cake and Janie do not necessarily work for me. Despite real-life rumors of coupledom, here, Berry and Ealy do not have great chemistry.

Oprah disagrees with me. During a session at the Television Critics' Tour, she declared that she would offer her open checkbook and some beachfront property for a kiss like the one Berry and Ealy share. Even more than their lack of chemistry, the music selected for their scenes disturb me even more. At different points, I heard a voice akin to Donny Hathaway's and his sound dates several decades later.

Unlike me, most Hurston die-hards will probably dislike the film from start to finish. The overwhelming majority of black women will enjoy Their Eyes Were Watching God precisely because most of the characters look good and there is a real progressive energy to the film.

For Oprah, who has been involved with the film versions of the black literary classics The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place and Beloved, she's finally made a film version for one of the books she loves most. Additionally, she's said, "I just hope that [the film] introduces the book to high school kids and reading moms and a public that probably never would have heard of her." With Oprah, that mission is so easily accomplished.