A drama set in the 1920s, where free-spirited Janie Crawford's search for happiness leads her through several different marriages, challenging the morals of her small town. Based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston.
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There are at least a few good things about the made for television version of Ms. Hurston's classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The first being the cinematography, as it is often moody, always rich, and at points ethereal: the water could not be bluer, nor could the people be more vibrantly brown. Also, it is worth noting the clever choices Mr. Martin made when deciding what to film. For instance, in the scene when Janie lies in bed with her first husband and ponders what he would do if she were to ever leave him, the director gives us a rather telling portrait of their relationship with just a few shots. He begins making the inner thigh of Logan Killicks' the center of the frame, thus allowing us to see the old man's flabby skin as it nearly falls from its bone. It is a sensitive portrait; for Killicks is no longer repulsive to the viewer- he is simply ashen, old, and, most importantly, an inappropriate suitor for the supple Janie.
Unfortunately, with the exception of a fine performance by Nicki Michauex and the delight of seeing Ruby Dee working, I find little else commendable about this theatrical mishap. To begin, it seems everyone involved with this production, from the screenwriters, producers, director, and the dialect coach- if one existed at all, did everything in their power to strip TEWWG of its blackness. And by the erasure of "blackness" I am referring to the production's lack of humor and word play, the lack of southern accents and sense of community, that there is no juke joint, hard work, eroticism, and constant reminders of racism so key to Hurston's understanding of the rural Black experience. (What so many Brooklyn accents were doing in Eatonville Florida is beyond me! Moreover, why Halle Berry was not encouraged to do something with her voice, other than what she did in Finding Isaiah is equally distressing.) Those who have read and care deeply about the book will also find disappointing the screenwriters' insistence on whittling down such an obvious celebration and examination of black rural life into a love story, as the camera simply refuses to venture beyond Teacake and Janie's bedroom.
Most regrettably, is the omission of life on the muck, where Janie and her man worked as migrant workers along with persons with colorful names like Bootyny, Sop-de-Bottom, and Stew Beef. For life on the muck, according to Ms. Hurston provides a complex view of Black life. It was in those pages, after all, us readers watched the workers dance at the juke, play the dozens, and deal with their respective experiences of being black, transient, impoverished, and yet, amazingly resilient. This they did with imagination, wit, ingenuity, and violence.
On a sadder note it was on the muck that Teacake beat Janie as other men so proudly beat their women, thereby showing us what Nanny really meant when she confirmed "de n***er woman" to be "de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." Also, it was via the beating that us readers understood the union of Janie and Teacake to be problematic, if not doomed and not just an excuse for the cheesy face licking of Ms. Berry and Mr. Ealy.
Sadly, these factors will all be lost on those who forwent the novel and settled for the television spectacle. One can only hope that Ms. Winfrey and company's pedestrian effort will encourage others to examine or reexamine Ms. Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece.
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