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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having read Langston Hughes's short story after watching the movie, I
can't fairly critique the movie itself without comparing it to the
source material ... although, had I not discovered Hughes's brilliant
narrative, I probably wouldn't even bother discussing the movie in the
first place. As TV movies go, it's better than average, I guess -- and
it DID compel me to seek out Hughes, for which I'm extremely grateful.
But even before reading the story I felt the movie version was
overloaded with "filler" -- cliché scenes and subplots that work
against, even contradict, the main story.
And what a story! Langston Hughes packs a whole novel's worth of ideas into a few carefully crafted, disarmingly simple and direct pages. His spare approach is perfectly suited to the character he is describing: the Cora that Hughes gives us is a woman with no imagination or ambition; no grand illusions about life, the world or her place in it. Unlike the movie's Cora, Hughes's character really doesn't change over the course of the story's events: she spends her whole life in the small town of Melton, living in the squalid house of her alcoholic father and "ailing" mother, continuing to stay there even after her younger siblings move on, working as a maid for a well-to-do white family that may not treat her well, but doesn't treat her as badly as other white families might. Hughes doesn't attempt to make her larger than life for the purpose of fiction; he doesn't glamorize or exaggerate her situation. She is plain, she is common; to this day you can find women exactly like her working menial jobs to support unexceptional children who will probably just grow up to do exactly the same thing (if they don't die or go to prison first).
What keeps Cora "stuck" in this dull-as-dirt life is that she isn't ashamed of it; she doesn't have the education, breeding or imagination to be ashamed of it. She has nothing to strive for -- hers is the only black family in a town of whites who think of her as a "nigger" and that's just the way it's always been and the way it's always going to be. There is no social ladder for her to climb, so she doesn't need to impress anyone or worry about what others will think. Hughes does not use the word "unashamed" in the story's title to describe a noble quality that Cora develops over the course of time. It's her natural state; like a dog or any other dumb animal, she has no capacity -- or use -- for shame.
So Cora does not evolve or change through the story's progression, but the reader's perception of her does, because Hughes contrasts her with her white employer, Mrs. Studevant -- a woman who is plagued by shame. The movie portrays Mrs. Studevant as a two-dimensional, neurotic shrew, but Hughes is far too sophisticated for that. His Mrs. Studevant -- like his Cora -- is a natural product of the environment she was born into: the competitive, judgmental environment of upper-class white society. In Mrs. Studevant's world one is expected to be ashamed of slow-witted, unattractive daughters who get pregnant out of wedlock by sleeping with men below their social station. Without editorializing or exaggerating, Hughes shows us the natural consequences of Mrs. Studevant's shame ... and Cora's equally natural response to it.
The fundamental problem with the movie is that it feels the need to give Cora an "arc." Movie Cora bears virtually no resemblance to the woman Hughes described; for the purpose of dramatic progression, the filmmakers suggest that Cora spends most of her life feeling victimized (and therefore shamed) by her circumstances and that, by confronting Mrs. Studevant before God and Man in the climactic scene, she is able to cast off shame and become a stronger, better person. By taking this approach, the movie not only misses the point of Hughes's story, it actually violates the spirit of it.
I suppose if I were to attempt a movie adaptation of this story, I would try to set a tone similar to that in Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade" (or perhaps Peter Sellers' "Being There," although I've only read the novel -- haven't seen the movie yet). Like Hughes's Cora, the main characters in those stories do not evolve or change. They simply are who and what they are, and as their stories progress they become mirrors reflecting the inhumanity in our society -- and ourselves.
This, however, is a made-for-TV version which -- though produced under the lofty-sounding auspices of PBS's "American Masterpieces" series -- really just gives Hughes's subtle and nuanced story a glamorized, sentimentalized, Lifetime Channel treatment. It's not utterly terrible, and there were certainly moments that got to me, but ultimately it's greatest virtue is that it prompted me to seek out Langston Hughes's truly magnificent short story.