Sunday, March 13, 2005

Watchers and Witnesses: Oprah, Zora and James

By Max Gordon
March 13, 2005

I didn’t intend to write this essay, but I feel I am forced to, much as one must abandon a home to an approaching conflagration or forest fire in order to save one’s life or get help. Black literature is being produced at an increasingly rapid speed by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, and as I imagine she may soon be arriving at another of my favorite books, Toni Morrison’s Sula, I feel the need to intervene.

I sat down last Sunday night to watch Oprah Winfrey Presents: Their Eyes Were Watching God with as much goodwill as I could possibly muster. Oprah begins by introducing the movie with yet another reference to “the kiss” in her preamble. I’ve been listening to her talk about that kiss for several weeks now. “I’m happy that the networks allowed us to keep the kiss.” “We fought for that kiss.” “You’ve got to watch Sunday for the big kiss.” At a Television Critics’ Tour, weeks before the show aired, she was quoted as saying, “I’m going to show that tape to Steadman, because I’ve got an open checkbook and some beachfront property if I ever get a kiss like that.”

I know Oprah’s got to sell her product, but damn. I’m irritated that this movie is being pushed as soft porn: can’t she trust the eroticism in the story to draw us in? Oprah’s suggestion of buying “a kiss like that” is anathema to the themes in Hurston’s novel, and suggests before we even start watching that the production’s on the wrong track; the whole point of the book is that Janie finds a man who isn’t impressed only by her money and status. She has a substantial bank account too, but she doesn’t need to use money to keep the man she loves.

Oprah informs us that she believes Zora would “shout” if she could see what had been done with her novel. When I reached the end of the movie, two and a half hours later, I realize Oprah's introductory words are the truest experience of the evening. Yes, praise God, Zora would be shouting, but would it be a shout of glee that her work had finally been mass-produced and commercialized, or would it be a death-scream of betrayal, as all the juicy Africanisms of her book, all the tasty and trashy bits of black culture were sandblasted and filed down to a smooth dish of caramel custard?

In the weeks and days preceding its premiere on television, the advertisements for ABC’s Their Eyes Were Watching God shown on giant screens in Times Square and on television featured Halle Berry twirling a finger through flowing hair-extensions that would make Diana Ross proud, while she writhed with a sexy brown-colored man and ran barefoot to Alicia Keyes' song, “Fallin’”. I told myself sternly, despite an already pronounced sinking feeling: “Before you judge it, give it a chance.”

I’d often come back to Hurston's novel for sustenance over the years, re-discovering its precise characterizations, hilarious exchanges, heartbreak and triumph as if I were reading it for the first time. I wanted its taste to be familiar in my mouth when I watched the film, so during the evenings the week before the event, I read aloud from the book while my partner made dinner. He and I had already gone through the usual concessions about literary adaptations: “You can’t put everything from the book into the movie”; “some things have to be brought up to date”;“a screen writer has to take some license when condensing the story”. But I kept the apology most specific to black literary adaptations to myself because it was embarrassing and painful: “Shut up and take what you get. You know you should be glad somebody even bothered to do a black story in the first place; who knows when the next honest movie about black culture will be made and besides, you’re starving for black representations on screen that aren’t gangsters or prostitutes. Just be glad it’s not Booty Call, Part 2.”

I’m less than five minutes into the movie and something is already wrong: Janie Crawford marches up the road to her home back from her adventures in the Everglades and tells her gossipy, judgmental neighbors to “go to hell". My partner and I exchange a “where was that in the book” frown. It is a false note, and the first major departure from the book: Zora writes, “[Janie's] speech was pleasant enough but she kept walking straight on to her gate.” Having Janie say, “Go to hell” suggests an aggressive antagonism between her and the rest of the community which she never expresses in the novel, even when some of the townsfolk want to testify against her at the end of the book. If anything, it is Janie’s desire to be accepted by them, while still maintaining her dignity. The words separate her from the other blacks in the story, and are cartoonish and unnecessary, provided only for viewers who need melodrama at the beginning of the movie to keep watching.

The next wrong turn is the characterization of Janie’s best friend Pheoby. In the book, Pheoby is the one person in the town, it seems, who doesn’t judge Janie for running off with a younger man. It is Pheoby who is the first to venture to Janie’s house when she returns and bring her something to eat. The scene between the women in the book is extravagant and loving and sets up Janie’s telling her story—not just where she’d recently come from, but who she’d been as a girl, before Pheoby knew her as Mrs. Joe Starks. Zora writes, “Pheoby’s hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story.” There is a sense of childlike wonder from Pheoby, as she, and we as readers, await what we know is going to be a fascinating tale, told in an inventive style full of surprises.

In the movie, a pinched, matronly Pheoby marches into Janie’s house to “let her have it” and has a tantrum. She's looked up to Janie for years, she says, and Janie, having run off with Tea Cake, has let her down. Janie’s story becomes a confession to quell her friend’s puritanical fury. It is also significant that the actress who plays Pheoby has darker skin than Halle Berry. This shouldn’t matter, and probably wouldn’t, if the script stayed with the friendship in the book. But as Janie’s character has now been revised into a “Dr. Phil” to Pheoby’s sexless prude, and with the racial omissions that are to come later in the production, Pheoby’s darker color has definite significance.

In a flashback, we experience Janie’s relationship with her grandmother, played by Ruby Dee. As an actress, Ruby Dee has the power to inject a pathos into the movie which is missed throughout; her acting can frame the story, as Nanny does in the book, with real pain. Unfortunately, it was someone’s idea to throw only a handful of words at Ruby Dee; she is on screen for an eyeblink and then disappears from the film altogether. The tight knot in my stomach at the beginning of the movie has now turned into a small tumor. How can they not give Ruby Dee even one of Nanny’s longer monologues about what it was like when she was a slave? We get a line or two, as Nanny enters the house, that she is exasperated with Janie, having caught her kissing a boy by the fence. She is preparing to marry Janie off to the old man Logan Killicks, as she fears that Janie will go to ruin as her own daughter did. What we don’t get are the horrors that Nanny has survived which inform her decision; Nanny comes off in the movie as a “meany.” Zora writes, “Old Nanny sat there rocking Janie like an infant and thinking back and back. Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feeling dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart.” Nanny’s dramas are that she was a slave who was raped by her master. Her “mistress” discovers that her baby was half white and beats Nanny, threatening in the morning that the overseer is going to whip her “Til de blood run down to yo’ heels.” Nanny escapes that night, saving her daughter, and manages to stay escaped until the slaves are freed. She raises her child with the help of some “good white people” in Florida and is even able to get her into a school, until another tragedy strikes and the daughter is brutally raped by a school teacher. Janie’s mother gives birth to her, but never recovers from the trauma and stays out drinking and partying until Nanny loses her in the world completely. Nanny: “Lawd knows where she is right now. She ain’t dead, ‘cause Ah’d know it by mah feelings, but sometimes Ah wish she was at rest.” Nanny’s monologue gives us an insight into why she feels she has to marry Janie off and give her some kind of security before she dies. “Put me down easy, Janie," Nanny says. "Ah'm a cracked plate.”

None of this is in the movie. Maybe it was also someone’s assumption that the same audience who would recognize Alicia Keyes' “Fallin” during the commercial advertisement would want to get to Halle Berry rolling around with that brown man as soon as possible, and couldn't be bothered to hear old-timey plantation stories from an old black slave; that Nanny’s reflections would grind Janie’s self-empowerment, sexual-awakening narrative to a halt. Nanny’s story definitely cools our heels and makes us think, but it derails us only if we are rushing to get to that kiss that Oprah told us about at the beginning. Without Nanny’s history, the story is fatally adrift, irreparably compromised. We don’t get to share her fear, which provides the novel’s suspense, that Janie may be “wild” or “rudderless” like her mother, that she may run off and do something spontaneous and sexually corrupt by everyone’s standards. And, most unforgivably for a television film, we don’t get to share Ruby Dee’s acting, which is another black classic and has a history of its own in American drama and letters. Nanny dies at some undetermined point, and she and Ruby Dee are abandoned in the story line. We don’t get the scene where Janie returns to Nanny for advice about why her marriage doesn’t satisfy her. The suggestion is nasty: this is a young, sexy production aimed at people of a certain generation. Don’t worry, we won’t be lingering on old folks, their memories or their deaths for long, if at all.

Janie Crawford leaves her marriage to Logan Killicks and hits the road with Joe Starks, a businessman with a vision of creating an all-black town in Eatonville. He is successful, and becomes Mayor to whom she becomes Mrs. Mayor. Eatonville is a new town, and new towns have a youthful spirit, but with the exception of a few extras, there seems to be an absence of older black people in the movie at all. It is an inside joke with black movies of this kind; actors of a certain age who are unable to find work in many of the white productions are usually cast in the black ones. Faces you haven’t seen working in a while suddenly reappear, if only to deliver a single line: the movie becomes a black TV family reunion. The town of Eatonville seems bereft of elderly people and babies, even after two decades have passed. When a crowd is gathered on the porch, everyone is the same age-range and color—a rap video filmed in the Twenties.

Things stick out awkwardly all through the movie—Janie runs around hugging trees, letting caterpillars crawl on her face, and freeing pigs; with her extended hands and floating hair she is supposed to suggest a girl who is enchanted with nature, but seems more like a black Helen Keller before she’s been tamed by Annie Sullivan. Janie sexily bites Jody’s ear, he ignores her advances. The image of Berry’s profile and teeth closing in on his ear is shot so close that it draws attention to itself, becoming a parody of sexy ear-biting, and suggesting that this will be significant later on. It isn’t. Several times a character kisses slowly down the back of another character in an uncomfortably self-conscious way. It becomes clear that sex is what we are supposed to focus on in the story: every time Janie kissed a man, I thought, “is this ‘the kiss’ Oprah was talking about? Is this it?” Waiting for the kiss to show up felt like holding a ticket at a church raffle and constantly waiting for the winning number to be called; the ribs and potato salad probably taste good, but everything pales in significance; you just want the first prize. Oprah’s handing out cars again. There’s a bizarre leitmotif throughout the movie as someone off-camera calls out, “Whatcha doin’ Janie?” and Berry replies, “I’m Watching God”. This is like the call and response from camp Hollywood musicals of the 30’s and 40’s or big band songs like Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket, A Tasket (a brown and yellow basket)” where a chorus of men answer a female jazz singer (“Was it green?” “No,no,no,no.”). Whatever this gimmick is supposed to tell us about Janie’s relationship to her physical surroundings, it is too blatant an effect, and succeeds only in making her seem obnoxious.

Berry carries plates of food to her husband as he works, and the music and voice-over suggest the passing of twenty years. The viewer is still dislocated because Berry’s face and body don’t age. Instead of Janie’s voice telling the story, what we really need is Zora: an omniscient, authoritative and playful narrator who can bring the separate parts together and introduce us to the novel's fecund language, which is one of the reasons why the book is so sumptuous in the first place. In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora or “God” is as much a character in the novel as the others. When Joe dies, Zora could tell us in her voice-over things Janie's can’t. “She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.” “She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around.” Or, when Janie is sent off by Nanny to her early marriage: “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

The movie worked for me only twice; once when Janie and Pheoby exchange a look after Joe denies Janie the chance to speak at the town’s first official gathering, and later when Janie does a twisty dance to some funky blues music down in the Everglades. The movie is successful when no one speaks. The experience of watching the images on screen and listening to the soundtrack is jarring. I was familiar with Bessie Jones’ voice prior to watching this film, and her singing is a narrative of an altogether different kind. The black experience in America sometimes defies language. Our music, and specifically our blues and gospel, tell an emotional truth of a kidnapped African who arrives on distant, unfamiliar shores, sometimes unable to communicate with anyone around her, facing the lash and the auction block. It is a truth of children who were bought and sold, and unimaginable cruelty and isolation. As a writer, I am humbled to admit that this aspect of the black experience may not be able to be captured in words at all, but only with a scream. Or a patted foot and a rocking, church house moan. It is the inescapable part of being black in America that no matter how many personal or political disagreements I may have with the black church as a gay man; no matter how many disappointments or grievances with family; no matter whether the party affiliations are Republican or Democratic, North or South, urban or rural: when certain black women stand up in a church, raise a hand and testify with their voices, the soul is hushed, and I am instantly reminded of what it has meant to be black in this country, all the pain, and loveliness, and horror of that experience. There are rooms in the black psyche where only music can enter. The hurt of being enslaved in America is often inarticulate and beyond literary manipulation, but books like Beloved, Sula, and Their Eyes Were Watching God come pretty damn close.

Music has often been used in Hollywood to distract from a film’s emotional vacuousness. A movie like Mississippi Burning is grotesque and offensive; with Mahalia Jackson singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the beginning of that film, and its subsequent Dirty Harry violence, on-screen sadism towards blacks, and macho, revisionist history, the film didn’t earn the right to play that song, or a song anywhere near it. Jackson’s interpretation of the gospel standard gave the film a gravitas that it couldn’t possibly have achieved on its own. Or take the 80’s classic of smug white privilege passed off as a deep exploration of mid-life crisis, “The Big Chill.” I was 13 when that film came out, and didn’t need a black studies course to reveal to me what a racist fraud it was; nerdy, shut-down white people who couldn’t relate to one another emotionally, suddenly became hip as they danced and bonded to the Four Tops or Smokey Robinson. The black music in that film wasn’t soundtrack, it was Amtrack—a speeding black soul train which the characters had missed and were running to catch a ride on. No one in that story was doing the kind of “I’m on the edge of a cliff” living found embedded in the music of Marvin Gaye, but the movie and the box office cashed in on his pain, as white actors threw vegetables around in a kitchen while black music played in the background, and the movie was hailed as “searching” and “powerful.”

For this reason, I am outraged when Bessie Jones is suddenly heard on the Their Eyes Were Watching God soundtrack as she sings “Begging the Blues”, “Sheep, Sheep Don’t You Know the Road”, or during a lament sung by Bernice Johnson Reagan. I’m insulted because I do feel something painful when these women sing, but it has nothing to do with what is happening on the television screen in front of me. When the money shot finally arrives, “the Kiss” that Oprah has been heating us up for, it is spit-swap done to a swampy, juke-joint tune to give the scene an extra raunchy lift. I watch the snaky, tongue-on tongue kiss and wait for the envy Oprah promised I was going to feel. It crosses my mind, “Maybe this is Booty Call, Part 2, after all.” As the movie lingers over Halle Berry, and her luxuriant hair - which should get its own screen credit as a separate character - and as the camera caresses her as if she were in a Revlon commercial, it is clear that the music in the movie exists not to enhance it, but to seal the emotional cracks which the screenplay isn’t able to fill.

Which brings us to the assassination of one of Hurston’s black male characters: Tea Cake. After Joe’s death, Janie falls in love with a guitar-playing gambler named Vergible Woods or, as everyone calls him, Tea Cake. In the book Tea Cake is described as having “a sly grin…full, purple lips.” Tea Cake is a dark-skinned black man, so dark, in fact, that Hurston devotes a minor sub-plot to a woman who visits Janie regularly and attempts to convince her that she should leave Tea Cake for her lighter-skinned brother. Mrs. Turner, described by Hurston as a woman with a pointed nose and thin lips, couldn’t “forgive [Janie] for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake.” She encourages Janie to “class off” with her and says, “It's too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em mahself.” Janie reminds her, “We’se uh mingled people and all us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks.” Mrs. Turner continues with her diatribe of hatred for darker blacks and her refusal to use black doctors or shop in black stores. Hurston describes Janie’s obvious attempts to discourage a friendship with Mrs. Turner, and Turner’s forgiving her, believing that since Janie is lighter than she is, Janie has the right to abuse her. Later in the story, Tea Cake beats Janie. He says to his friend, Sop-de-Bottom “Ah didn’t wants whup her last night, but ol’ Mis Turner done sent for her brother tuh come tuh bait Janie in and take her away from me. Ah didn’t whup Janie ‘cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.”

None of this is in the movie; not the beating, or Mrs. Turner, or even Tea Cake as a dark-skinned man. Played by the actor Michael Ealy, Tea Cake is a brown-skinned dreamboat with blue eyes, a male Halle Berry, and what might have been referred to during Zora’s time as a “pretty nigger.” The fact that he doesn’t make a convincing Tea Cake is not a put-down of his performance; Tea Cake is a man of the streets, a roamer and musician, of our blues tradition that recalls Lightin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters. The omission of Tea Cake’s darker skin color and the effect that it has to have during that era on his relationship with Janie, a light-skinned woman of privilege, is not just a careless oversight, but something much more sinister.

Anyone who has worked on a movie knows that filmmaking is a very deliberate act, especially a film like this that was in production for more than ten years. Because of the vast expense, every decision is considered and reconsidered, discussed at great length. It is extraordinary that with a black producer, black co-producer, Pulitzer-prize winning black writer and a woman-of-color director, Tea Cake isn’t written in the screenplay as dark-skinned. It is more than just an error of the casting director; the story-line has vanished without a trace. Hiring an actor this light with blue eyes to play Tea Cake, instead of an actor like Don Cheadle, harkens back to the days of Lena Horne’s scenes being cut out of Hollywood movies run in the South because she was too “dark” for their screens, only this time it’s a black producer at the projector. Hurston had to have known what her racial critique would mean to every black person who encountered her book, from country folks to the blacks on Sugar Hill, what it would mean to assimilationist blacks to have a dark-skinned hero; one could argue that the subsequent criticism of her work by some black male writers of the Harlem Renaissance was based on this critique. Richard Wright in particular was impatient with Hurston for not writing what he deemed “protest” literature, unable to see that Janie’s expression of her sensuality was her protest, and that when you have been enslaved and your body owned by someone else, sometimes pleasure of the self, acknowledgement that a self even exists to give pleasure to, is of itself revolutionary. Whatever criticisms one has of Zora, and there may be many, the woman never played it safe, and it’s unfair to put her name on a movie this politically careful, this hackneyed, as it panders to mainstream audiences' generic, conservative tastes.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the great novels of the twentieth century, and is unmatched in its sensuality and grace; its juice drips down your wrists when you read it like a ripe piece of fruit. It’s irresistible because Zora has achieved something truly African in her construction and rendering: the storytelling itself and Janie’s natural environment are main characters and assert themselves throughout. A sunset, a buzzard, or Janie's internal dialogue are given as much devotion and care as characters like Lige Moss, Matt Bonner and Sop-de-Bottom. There is a reverence for nature that would inspire any modern-day animal rights activist or environmentalist. Hurston describes Janie’s response to a mule that has been overworked and become the butt of jokes in the town: “A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things. She wanted to fight about it.” The novel is exceptional in that no one in the story is humiliated or abandoned to serve the narrative; there is a great equality and fairness to Hurston's vision of the community, a sense of every living thing's being necessary and sacred, of everyone's being seen. While some of the townsfolk in Eatonville are ridiculous and petty, no character is made grotesque or “othered”, unlike most popular racist depictions of blacks at the time. The pornographic gaze is notably absence from this novel. Hurston's perception of blacks and women was and continues to be subversive to American ideologies of race and sex, which is the main reason why an overemphasis on the sexuality of the book, to the degree that it overshadows its other merits, is so depressing.

Zora was before her time, predating the “black is beautiful” movement of the Sixties and the consciousness-raising during the civil-rights movement. As the great storm of water approaches and Janie and Tea Cake await its destruction force, Zora says, “The time had passed for asking the white folks what to look at through that door. Six eyes were questioning God” (her italics). In this passage, she suggests a reality that extends beyond the racism the characters are forced to endure. As nature imposes itself, Zora invites the reader to share in a perception that nature, and thus God, is and will be the ultimate authority over their lives, that in a moment of natural disaster there is no black or white, no patriarchal influence to command them. Janie and Tea Cake exist in the novel without apology or “white people on the brain”, and don’t need a white intermediary in order to have an experience with God, their sexuality, or each other. The ownership of one’s sexuality and the application of it by people who are one or two generations from enslavement, particularly by a black woman, is profound, and a direct affront to the idea of a black sexual relationship that occurs only when a white master mates his black gals and black bucks for profit. The same is true for blacks who have a direct relationship with God, not as a patriarchal white father, but through nature, music and their sensuality. And, despite the idea of many in my post-civil rights generation that, because of racism and slavery, blacks were too downtrodden ever to have enjoyed themselves until around 1980, Janie’s and Tea Cake’s love affair is fully realized, as they experience continuous satisfaction, disappointment and discovery with one another. Janie's open desire for Tea Cake blasts stereotypes of "older" women who are forced to renounce their sexuality when they are widowed or no longer desired by their husbands. At forty, Janie is voracious for adventure and pleasure, more than at any other time in her life. In a way that has been denied throughout her life, she wants to go outside and play. "She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see." The book is a celebration of black American culture and self-love, an affirmation of resistance through joyous living that was daring and bold for 1937 or any other time.

It is Tea Cake, a flawed but extraordinary character, who teaches Janie to play checkers, who brushes her hair one evening, who puts Janie in a set of overalls and asks her to work beside him in the fields. When Tea Cake enters the story, it is the first time Janie is truly seen by someone she loves, and not put on a pedestal, as Jody or Nanny had always done to her. Tea Cake is vital to Janie’s sexual awakening, and the humor that they share throughout their courtship is erotic and fun. When Janie meets Tea Cake for the first time: “She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it.” As there are so few honest cinematic representations of darker black men or women, to lose an opportunity with a film like this when the character already exists as written is criminal. The TV screen and the movie screen are extraordinarily powerful, often overpowering, and the effect of seeing oneself and one’s culture in a movie, and knowing that millions of others are also watching, can be a profound experience of visibility. For the black boy who resembles Tea Cake in the U.S., who could have been inspired to see a black man who was created in his image, an opportunity is lost. All America, black and white, could use the experience of watching Tea Cake, who is at times abusive and selfish, but also loving, generous, masculine and - what depictions of very black men in America have always resisted - feminine. As black men in general, but specifically darker black men, are so rarely presented with any nuance, but only as brutes, and dark black women are virtually absent as romantic leads and often cast as maids and whores, the revision of the character is also a lost opportunity to subvert the image of “Tea Cakes” we are used to seeing carried away in the backs of squad cars on Cops and pencil-sketched on the evening news. Zora’s gift to us was the creation of a dynamic male character who she knew existed in life and had been unacknowledged in American literature. Tea Cake and dark-skinned black men and women are maligned in the American mind, and this television production drives them further underground.

Gone from the story is the fact that it is not only rabies, but Tea Cake’s fear that Janie will leave him for Mrs. Turner’s lighter brother, which eventually drives Tea Cake mad - an indictment of our cultural obsession with race, and how our self-hatred often leads to self-destruction and decay. Tea Cake’s violence against Janie is motivated by his need to prove his manhood because he feels inadequate about his color and needs to assert his power. These are crucial dynamics not only to the plot, but to contemporary black life; some black women, and white women too, are victimized for reasons not dissimilar. Gone also is the trial Janie must face for shooting Tea Cake in his rabid decline, when she is charged and acquitted for his murder. Because of the conventionality of the adaptation, we lose the freakiness which gives their relationship its kick. The fact that Janie is fifteen years older than Tea Cake, and the class and racial division between them, make this novel courageous in its attempt to deconstruct, or at least examine those differences, to reveal them for the reader's consideration. Hurston’s novel is exceptional if only because Janie is a departure from the compulsory tragic mulatto found in American literature and film - there isn’t a single line of self-pity anywhere in her story. This is a light-skinned black female protagonist who finds satisfaction in her life not by being exalted and separated from her community by materialism, but by risking everything for an experience that she believes, right or wrong, will satisfy her soul. In this dynamic, Zora also turns the assumption of black envy and desire for white privilege and power at any cost on its head. Zora writes of Tea Cake in Janie's memory, “Then Tea Cake came prancing around where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself was finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall.” It is regrettable that by depriving Janie of a compelling Tea Cake, the movie undercuts what makes her inner journey unique and powerful.

In the film conclusion, Janie comes back to Eatonville, where the story has begun, and we return to her telling her tale to her best friend, Pheoby. Pheoby thanks Janie and runs home, vowing to get her husband to take her fishing and pay more attention to her. Janie has convinced Pheoby with her story to live her own life to the fullest, which is true to the novel. But there is a tiny suggestion in the movie that Janie has "healed” Pheoby, less like a friend and more like a self-help guru. Since Pheoby starts the movie condemning her friend’s departure and expressing her anguish that Janie, her "hero", has let her down, a suggestion is created that Pheoby has now been “enlightened”. What isn’t clear from the movie is whether or not Janie sees Pheoby as her equal. Although it is the 1920’s, Pheoby has been provided with a life-changing motivational speech through Janie’s story; she’s been given the gift of an episode of Oprah. Janie, in fact, is Oprah: distinct, separate from the community, pontificating, self-centered and superior.

I feel isolated in my anger, as usual, and wonder if I’m overreacting. It is every writer’s greatest fear that after death, someone will tinker with your work, edit and reshape it into something unrecognizable, and still keep your name on it. I ask the woman who sits next to me at jury duty, a white woman in her fifties who is always good for a conversation about current events, if she watched. She tells me she missed it. When I ask why, she replies with a wave of her hand, “I’m not really interested in stuff like that. Too schmaltzy.”

Schmaltzy? Zora Neale Hurston? The whole point of the love story in the book is that it is anything but schmaltzy; it is a hard-won romance between two people who have suffered greatly; it is a high-wire love affair. Janie and Tea Cake have an adult innocence which is lovely to observe because they have everything to lose but choose to love anyway; there is nothing petulant or narcissistic, nothing schmaltzy about their exchange. Reading the book, you respect Janie's happiness with Tea Cake and can understand how she "earns" the right to pleasure after two lonely marriages and a life of "protection", why she grieves him, and how she becomes the woman she does when their relationship is over. Now I know something’s wrong: the movie isn’t Zora. Zora doesn’t take any shortcuts in the writing, but the movie does.

I see my neighbor the next morning, a young black professional, as we are both outside walking our dogs. “I TiVo’d it to watch this weekend, but I’m not sure, I may erase it.” She makes a face and tells me her favorite radio announcer, also a black woman, suggested on the air that she’d wasted her time watching it, that Oprah’s producing it had been a mistake. When I share my concerns about the movie with her she says, “Maybe the truth about black life is just too hard for Oprah’s audience to swallow.”

Of course. And black life is often too hard to swallow for the black person living it. But does that mean that the truth should be changed so that audience members can be entertained without being threatened? What would the ratings look like if Janie fell in love with a dark-skinned black man? What would the advertising dollars look like? Would there be any advertising dollars, as companies backed away from the production - suspecting that people watching at home without their glasses on and seeing Halle Berry in the arms of a “black” black man might think it looked too much like an interracial relationship and stop watching or boycott their product?

I understand the desire to bring Hurston's work to a larger audience; the power that a production like this can have to introduce her to new readers is immense. But what about the new readers who might have considered her before this movie and now recoil after watching it, thinking she writes only banal black Harlequin romance and garbage? The excuse that you can do only so much on television just doesn’t exist anymore; if you have the money to produce a film of this magnitude, then you have all the possibilities that television offers, including cable, subscriber channels like HBO and Showtime, and public television. The viewing audience may be less than the estimated 25 million people who saw Their Eyes Were Watching God ("only on ABC" as Oprah reminds us after a commercial break), but an audience will always be found if the production is worthy, even if the bulk of that audience sees the movie on DVD for the first time. If the goal is to introduce a lesser-known artist to a mainstream audience, the idea is not just to trick people into watching so that the ratings are high, and then leave them unmoved by what they have seen, but rather to offer a lasting product, true to its author's legacy. The greatest surprise for me throughout the evening was that the commercial interruptions weren’t as disturbing as they should have been. The viewer goes from one kind of advertisement to another; Halle Berry swims on her back in a large pond, recalling vacation ads for the Caribbean, followed immediately by commercials for toothpaste, dish soap or new cars. The movie ends abruptly, and the next program starts, but none of the story’s emotional power lingers.

My nightmare is that if Toni Morrison’s Sula is produced by Oprah, it will be like the other Harpo productions, apples covered in Oprah caramel, as she turns another giant of black literature into a self-help lecture . Sula is ripe for it; it is the story of a black female “outcast”, of how the community perceives her and arguably destroys her, of how she rebels against them, providing fascination and focus for their curiosity and almost mystical wonder at her insouciance and sass. Sula’s best friend Nell, who takes a more conservative path, pays a different kind of price in her life. Morrison's book is about what it means to be free or conventional in a society and the effect two women's life choices have on their girlhood friendship. It is heartbreaking because neither Sula nor Nell “wins”; there is an acknowledgement of the pain that comes from being on the “inside” of a community and of the pain that comes from being locked out. If there is any motivational truth achieved at the end of the book it is the potential of a person’s combining the practicality of a Nell and the audacity of a Sula. These two women can be viewed as symbolic halves of a fractured self, which may finally come together in the surviving Nell. She claims Sula at the end of the book: “O Lord, Sula…we was girls together.” Morrison writes of Nell standing in the cemetery, "Leaves stirred; mud shifted; there was the smell of overripe green things. A soft ball of fur broke and scattered like dandelion spores in the breeze." Like Janie's recollection of Tea Cake "with the sun for a shawl", the dead Sula Peace is resurrected through nature and a surviving character's memory. Morrison never loses sight of the fact that the two exist in a community that defines their roles as women, whether they capitulate, resist, or transcend these roles. The community in the book is introduced before the central characters, existing as a character itself, and it is clear to the reader that the community will survive both Sula and Nell after they are gone.

In the hands of a misguided intention and as a television movie produced by Winfrey, Sula, played by Halle Berry, shows the community how powerful she is by becoming emancipated, “her own woman”. She sets off from the town Medallion to be educated, and returns home an entrepreneur, flaunting to everyone how rich and successful she’s become. Nell, played by an actress with darker skin, becomes Sula’s sidekick, marveling at Sula’s independence and ability to do things on her own, while she herself is trapped in a loveless marriage with kids. In this version, Nell’s cry for Sula at the end of the movie is less about girlhood loss and friendship, more about Sula’s having to go too soon, although thankfully leaving behind her spunky wisdom and empowerment tips. The now “enlightened” Nell realizes her claustrophobic relationship to her community and church has been based on low self-esteem; she has not believed in herself enough to live on the edge as Sula did. The last image of the film is of Nell, tottering on high heels and carrying Sula’s purse through town as she shows everyone that she too can be rich and fabulous. The Novel, Sula, becomes a fable of black self-determination, neo-conservative politics, and one woman’s experience of success, leadership and isolation after abandoning her community and the people she represents. Sula Peace as Condoleezza Rice.

I loved and admired Oprah as Sophia in The Color Purple as did many of us, and it is this memory that often stops me from criticizing her. It was Sophia who carried the blues-song and slave narrative in the adaptation of that film, more than the blues singer Shug Avery or the central character Celie. Sophia’s monologue had the cadence of the opening words in a sermon or testimonial blues: “All my life I’ve had to fight…” and, “I want to thank you, Miss Celie, for everything you done for me. I remembers the day I was in the store with Miss Millie. I’s feelin’ down, I’s feelin' mighty bad. And when I seened you, I knowed de’ is a God.” There’s not a black person I’ve ever met who hasn’t had Winfrey’s performance in that film seared permanently in their memory. But that was two decades, 100 pounds, and a billion dollars ago. As Oprah has enjoyed greater wealth and influence, she has entered into another chapter in her legacy, as a producer and promoter of ideas. It is one thing to change a few concepts to adapt a literary work for the screen, quite another to change an artist’s intention - especially an artist whose creativity, curiosity and exploration were never given to pat, easy answers - to fit the ideological agenda of a celebrity talk show.

There is nothing wrong with emphasizing the motivational aspects in an artist’s work. The problem is that as personal motivation isn’t the only challenge the black community faces, as it's not the only reason that black success is thwarted in this country, it shouldn’t be prescribed for every black problem, nor should it overpower adapted black works of art. Just because Oprah’s the richest black on the block, and has hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, just because she can afford to buy the rights to the book and produce it and we can’t, she should not have the final say on how a black artist’s work is thematically presented. In his article, “The Full Blown ‘Oprah Effect’: Reflections on Color, Class and New Age Racism,” Paul Street observes, “In Oprah’s world it’s all about how to change your life, a slogan that does not mean engaging in the difficult and often dirty struggle to challenge hierarchy and democratize society.” The sad result is that any black writer whose work she gets her hands on will say what she needs them to say: themes that fit her show’s agenda will be encouraged, those that don’t support her conception of self-empowerment and self-realization will be discarded.

This is especially problematic as we are deep into the second term of an Orwellian Bush presidency, in which “Newspeak” becomes more prevalent and our access to information is increasingly determined by business interests; as companies continue to merge, and corporate businessmen own the publishers and newspapers who own the news channels and the radio stations who own the moviehouses and magazines, five people get to decide for the entire nation which ideas will be suppressed. This type of “free speech” will always favor whomever has the greatest wealth, and it is the richest who will impose his ideology, even when it hijacks stories about community, grassroots resistance or coalition-building, and changes them into a reactionary “do-it-yourself kit.”

James Baldwin repeatedly referred to the role of the witness in his work. As a writer, and child preacher, he was more than familiar with the church-house saying, “Can I get a witness?” (I am a witness. That's my responsibility. I write it all down.) In the documentary based on his life, “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin says in an interview, “Black people need witnesses in this hostile world that thinks everything is white.” His ideas about an artist’s responsibility were succinct: “real writers question their age. They demand yes or no answers. Typers collaborate. You collaborate or you question.” The role of the black artist is to watch what is happening in her society and tell the truth about it, but it has become harder to find any images of black truth in our popular culture. A friend and I recently agreed that integrity had become the new currency of value. As some blacks have achieved incredible wealth in this country, “getting paid” isn’t the same issue anymore for successful artists. Anyone with money can buy a new pair of shoes from Gucci, diamonds from Tiffany & Co., or an Armani suit with their American Express card. Who is willing to tell the truth?

There are countries where imperiled artists find themselves in prison or “disappeared” from the streets, their books banned from the shelves or destroyed; America kills its black artists with cash. The more commercial one’s interests, the less critical one can be, for fear of upsetting the movie studio, television network, record company, or the viewing audience, which is predominantly white. The truth of black life is compromised or jettisoned altogether because it is deemed too threatening to be entertaining. It often it is the businessperson inside the artist who has the final say. As business is generally conservative, the possibility of creating something which might produce a radical shift in the lives of everyday black people - a work of political feistiness that gets an audience angry and leads to social change, or tells a truth which doesn’t confirm the status quo - is lost. Entertainment companies instead encourage artists to create glorified representations of "street life": blacks murdering other blacks, gang warfare, drug dealing, prison and prostitution - in short, black pathology, without any critique of the social oppression that creates or enables it.

When I think about a possible time capsule that includes a copy of the televised Their Eyes Were Watching God as a document of black life in 2005 or even in the 1920’s, I realize that it doesn’t tell the truth about either one - it’s a nothing burger. During the period in the Eighties and early Nineties, when Hollywood’s commitment to telling the truth about black life extended only as far as Beverly Hills Cop I and II and Jumping Jack Flash, when white female actresses were at their perkiest, I considered starting a support group for me and my disillusioned friends, NAMR (Niggers Against Meg Ryan). I still sometimes wonder, as I did then, what “black” entertainment is art, and what role it plays other than as a narcotic to thwart social change. Perhaps there is a place for the Barbershops, and Beautyshops, the Soul Planes, Cookouts, and Snow Dogs, but as that seems to be all that America wants to see about the black experience, and as what is adapted from literature becomes transformed into something unrecognizable, I wonder if anyone will ever know about black voter disenfranchisement in 2000 and 2004, massive unemployment, cuts in scholarships and job-training, families struggling to survive with inadequate or non-existent increases in the minimum wage. Which popular black artists, singers, writers, filmmakers, television personalities, are generating these stories?

A month before the time of this writing, three black men in New York were arrested for filming the police as part of a volunteer cop-watch program in Brooklyn. In the anti-racist college organization of which I was a part, we were encouraged to watch arrests while they occurred, knowing that anything could happen if the police apprehended a black person while no one was looking. We learned the immediate value of the power a witness could have in his or her community. A watcher just stands there and sees what is happening, but he feels no responsibility and he will eventually walk away - what he has seen has no resonance, no permanence. The witness understands the importance of what she has seen and of her ability one day to recall it. Anyone can watch, but it takes fearlessness to witness. The witness knows the story will be told in a way that no one else can, or will be told at all, because she was there.

In Claude Lanzmann’s documentary epic Shoah, Holocaust survivor Richard Glazar-Basel remembers, “For everyone behind whom the gate of Treblinka closed there was death, had to be death, for no one was supposed to be left to bear witness.” Later in the second half of the film, Filip Müller, a Czech survivor who was sent as a young man to work in the crematorium as part of Auschwitz’s “special detail” recalls a moment of extraordinary despair and hopelessness as he entered the gas chamber having decided to end his life. Müller describes standing in the chamber next to a woman who said to him moments before her own extermination, “So you want to die. But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must bear witness to our suffering, and to the injustice done to us.” It is the witness, particularly of the victimized, who must be the voice for the many who are gone or silenced, who must retain the facts when history is revised or ignored altogether. From the gay activist who can recall our government’s belated and inadequate response to the AIDS crisis, to the Harlem Renaissance author who perpetuates the slave narrative through the fictionalized characterization of a grandmother describing her painful past to her granddaughter, the people for whom the witness speaks may be legion. As there are forces which actively work in this country to extinguish artists and the truth, it becomes exceptional when one is able to beat back their oppression long enough to create a coherent moment to pause and reflect on it, much less record it. If one is fortunate enough to live to tell, then tell one must.

We have become a nation of watchers. Our lives and our art are interpreted for us and advertised to us as truth; we have to watch a reality television show about our own family to know what the kids are doing upstairs. When a society has no witnesses, people are unable to appreciate that they are not alone in facing their individual persecutions, that their oppression has a context. When we don't witness for each other, we deny ourselves the opportunity to feel vital and necessary to what occurs in the world; we don't feel we can participate in a fundamental way to what is happening to us, and eventually reconcile ourselves to the reality presented by Fox or CNN as "news". Each family stays in its home struggling in isolation, connected to the rest of the world through the television. The family in apartment 201 has a wounded daughter who served in Iraq, for whom they went into debt buying extra protective military equipment, and who is now being asked by the government to pay for her meals at a military hospital, unbeknownst to the family in 202 with the husband who has worked for the same automotive company for 35 years and still can't afford the thousands of dollars in co-payments, who has had to leave the hospital early after a major surgery, and who has never met the people in 203 with four children and no health insurance at all. Corrupt doctrines like the Patriot Act raise the stakes even higher, encouraging our paranoia and fear; we go from being watchers to spies. As no one trusts anyone anymore, possibilities for solidarity and social change are severely diminished. Families keep their "failures" private, and try even harder to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" as they listen to television programs that tell them the problem with the minimum wage and health care in America is their lack of personal motivation and self-esteem.

James Baldwin said at the end of his life, as quoted by his brother David: “I pray I’ve done my work so that when I’m gone from here, through all the turmoil, through all the wreckage and rumble, when someone finds himself digging through the ruins, I pray that somewhere in the wreckage they’ll find me. That somewhere in that wreckage they can use something I’ve left behind. And if I’ve done that, then I’ve accomplished something in my life.”

Oprah Winfrey said in an interview before the film's viewing, "My goal is to get as many people to see [Eyes] as possible and to elevate Zora Neale Hurston. If two weeks after the film Zora Neale Hurston's name is on the best-seller list, we would have won." Sending a television production of Their Eyes Are Watching God like this into the world is like saying to a black child, the night before her first day at an all-white school: “Now don’t worry, Baby, Mama knows everyone is going to like you for who you are. But just in case, we’re gonna lighten your hair tonight and I bought you these blue contacts. You want to be popular, don’t you?” Bottom line: this book is too beautiful, honest and vulnerable for a production this crude, no matter how well advertised it is or how good it looks. And it isn't worthy of Zora Neale Hurston, a writer, anthropologist and historian who was a major witness to black life in the African diaspora, and who enjoyed and loved herself and her people immensely. If you have to change a story this much for it to be watchable, or prostitute it by using a tongue-heavy kiss as its major selling-point, then please: just leave it alone. There are still a few things left in the world, thank God, that an open check book and beach front property can’t buy.

copyright Max Gordon