15 March 2005

Taking Oprah to task

From Max Gordon's incisive essay, "Watchers and Witnesses," a powerful critique of Oprah's interpretation of Their Eyes Were Watching God:

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, and one could argue that the subsequent criticism of her work by some black male writers of the Harlem Renaissance was formed 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 tastes.

(I really had a hard time figuring out what to excerpt--it's an excellent piece.)

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