By Barbara Ceptus
Oprah is rich. She can pull together an all-star TV cast by picking up her phone and she has the star power to get the nation reading. But is she really “the nation’s one-woman African-American studies department?” That’s what the New York Times called her in a review of ABC’s March 6 broadcast of Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God, the television adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel. The label raises troubling questions for those aware of the precarious future of African-American studies in this country and the years of hard work spent towards canonizing Black literature. The issue of whether or not Oprah Winfrey can take the charge of educating the U.S. about African-American history and culture is even more pressing when we consider how much history and context is glossed over in this latest much-hyped TV project.
Oprah takes a four-course novel that requires time to savor and digest and reduces it to baby food. It’s easily digestible, but hardly nurturing or memorable.
For those who have not heard of Zora Neale Hurston, here is a quick review. Hurston was a best selling author, anthropologist, journalist and playwright who became famous during the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance. She died alone and in poverty in 1960 and was largely forgotten in U.S. literary history until novelist Alice Walker rediscovered her work-and literally her unmarked grave-in the late 1980s. Since then, there has been a Hurston revival of sorts which include a litany of articles, books, and several major biographies.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about overcoming the sexual oppression of Black women. Janie Crawford, the protagonist, is raised by her grandmother Nanny who warns her that “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” Nanny marries off Janie to a land-owning farmer to help her avoid a life of poverty, but an unhappy Janie runs off in search of love with Jody Starks, a man with “a throne at the seat of his pants.” She stays with Starks and endures twenty years of subjugation as he builds Eatonville, the first incorporated Black town in the U.S. Janie eventually resists by publicly embarrassing Starks -a move the novel implies causes his death. Shortly after Starks’s death, Janie runs off with Tea Cake, a carefree man twelve years her junior, and embarks on a journey of self-discovery and true love. Not too long after finding love, circumstances lead her back to Eatonville where she tells her story.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex novel that addresses issues of color, sexuality, community and self-fulfillment. Oprah’s television adaptation does anything but. It boils the tale down to a barely entertaining love story that omits history, context and any true complexity. In the novel, Janie is a light-skinned product of generations of interracial rape, a heritage that becomes a liability because the character’s beauty is such a fixation in her community. This relationship between how history is literally marked on Black women’s bodies, how gender relations play out in Black communities, and how the color-caste system was created by those legacies is-in the TV version-neatly covered up by the flowing tresses of Halle Berry, who plays Janie in the film.
Oprah’s rendition of Their Eyes Were Watching God reduces the novel’s complexities of race, gender and history to pretty costumes, lush backgrounds, and sexy bodies. What the viewer is left with is a sense that Halle Berry looks great in whatever she wears (or doesn’t wear), but Janie is lost. We never get a sense of who Janie is, where she comes from, or where she’s going. This is precisely because of the loss of the rich historical context that inspires Janie’s awakenings in the novel. Janie does find love, but a love story, the novel is not.
It is a bit odd that the TV adaptation skims over the most involved and intriguing aspects of the novel. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author Suzanne Lori-Parks, whose Finding Mother’s Body documents one Black woman’s search for self-determination, adapted the screenplay for the film. Darnell Martin, the director of I Like It Like That, a film that chronicles a contemporary Latino family, directed it. Since both these women had the wherewithal to tackle important and complex issues in their own work, one wonders what went wrong with Their Eyes Were Watching God? Maybe Oprah is the problem.
As if the disastrous adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved wasn’t bad enough, Oprah has now butchered Their Eyes Were Watching God. Calling her the custodian of Black literature for doing so is an outrage. It is insulting to the activists, writers, artists, and academics who put time and energy-though not as much money as Oprah-into getting the public to seriously engage Black women’s literature.
I would suggest that before Oprah puts Morrison’s Paradise into production she should sit in on a few Black women’s literature courses. She might learn something.
Barbara Ceptus is a Research Associate at the Applied Research Center in Oakland.