Film | Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005)

There’s two things everybody got to find out for theyselves: they got to find out about love, and they got to find out about living. Now, love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing. And it’s different on every shore. And living… well, I just come back from burying the dead.

I’m glad I watched Their Eyes Were Watching God with a particularly weak memory of the original text and was able to enjoy the film for itself. I’m not much of a fan of Halle Berry, but her acting is wonderful and she catches the spirit of both the young, dreamy Janie and also the older, wiser Janie extremely well, whilst Michael Ealy is heart-wrenchingly dazzling as Tea Cake. The chemistry between the two is captivating in its passion and poignancy. The stunning cinematography and the lush landscapes add the finishing touches to a truly mesmerising film.

Watching this adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God inspired me to go back and reread the original by Zora Neale Hurston (review here), for both the pleasure of reading it again and also to compare it to the film. As much I enjoyed it, it isn’t a perfect adaptation of the original. Although the storyline and characters are true to the book, there is a notable absence of racialism and colour consciousness in the film. I can understand that perhaps Darnell Martin and Oprah Winfrey wanted to create a black community that wasn’t defined by it’s polarity to the white community and or its characteristics to depend on its treatment by their former slave-owners, and perhaps they thought that just the concept of a town only for a Black community would be enough of an indication to the context of the film. However, I do think that it it takes away from the complexities of Hurston’s story, which is a real shame. But then there’s only so much you can fit into less than two hours of film time. Although diluted, the film does portray Hurston’s celebration of Black rural life in the south.

The feminist aspects of the story are much more apparent in the film, but I wouldn’t say they are entirely in tune with the original, and are, in fact, over-simplified. Taking away the history of slavery and racism simplifies the power politics of the oppression of Black women as being between just men and women, when actually – as Hurston explores in her book – the oppression of Black women is much more complicated as it is instigated not only by their own men, but also by White men and women. Furthermore, the concept of freedom is a much more modern idea in the film: in the original story Janie marries Tea Cake and he liberates her from the traditional, repressive model of marriage, whereas in the film Janie makes a point of not marrying Tea Cake, suggesting that real freedom can only be achieved outside of marriage, making Janie much more rebellious than Hurston’s Janie.

The one thing that I didn’t like about the film was that, whilst in Hurtson’s book God and religion is a natural part of the story and the community, Janie only mentions God in the film when Tea Cake asks “hey Janie, whatcha doin?” “I’m watching God”- this a complete failure of an attempt to pull the title and the story together.

Having said all this, I am still planning to get myself a copy of this film on DVD as it’s a gorgeous tribute to Hurston’s love story of Janie and Tea Cake. If you do watch it, you owe it to yourself to read the book, too. And prepare to be blown away by its words.

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